Community College Offers Second Chance for High School Dropouts to Earn Their Diplomas

Gateway advisor Michelle Atkinson.
Gateway advisor Michelle Atkinson.

Owens Community College staff member regularly Michelle Atkinson hands out to her students a list of rules she advises them to live by.

They're printed on brightly colored, laminated sheets with "Michelle's Eleven Commandments" written in bold letters across the top.

"Never miss class, pay attention in class, pretend you're interested even when you're not," Atkinson rattled off.

Atkinson's an advisor for the Owens' chapter of Gateway to College, a national program that offers high school dropouts or students at-risk of dropping out a second chance to finish their education-- by taking college classes.

She said the program offers students an alternative when traditional schools just won't click for a variety of reasons.

"They might have been having trouble socially, they might not have been challenged enough," she said. "So putting them into a college environment might put them into a little bit more independence where they have to rise and meet the academic endeavors that they need to in order to succeed."

Students begin their Gateway education with what's called a foundation term, where they take classes in reading, writing, math and college skills. After that, once their high school requirements are met, students can begin to earn additional college credits toward a degree.

Gateway director James Jackson acknowledges that it's a novel approach to helping kids at risk finish school, compared to trying to coerce them back to their public high school, or steer them to alternatives like on-line charter schools.

"Basically, we're taking kids that were not successful in high school and putting them in college and expecting them to be successful," Jackson said.

Jackson said not everyone is a good fit, and not everyone who applies gets in.

First, there are basic eligibility requirements: They must read, at a minimum, at the ninth grade level; they must have at least five high school credits under their belts, and they must be a Toledo resident between the ages of 16 and 21.

Then, there is a lengthy application process made up of placement testing, transcript reviews, and an in-person interview.

That's where Jackson intently listens for one indicator of success: how students talk about themselves.

"Are they the victim in all of the stories, are they the heroes in all of their stories, or do they have that balance that most of us have," he said. "And what I've found, some students have terrible home life situations, we're talking abusive families, extreme poverty, but despite all of those odds against them, they still believe that they're worth getting their high school education."

The Gateway program is funded through a few sources: a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, support from Owens, and a little more than $5,000 of state funding for each student from Toledo Public Schools.

The program is partnered with the district, and is free to students.

Those who complete it receive a Toledo high school diploma, thanks to an agreement between the schools listing which Owens classes can be taken in place of a traditional Toledo course.

And once their high school requirements are met, students can begin to earn additional college credits by taking some of the campus' available electives.

Eighteen year old Matthew Tammarine liked the sound of the program when he joined two years ago.

Before that, he said, he had failed out of traditional high school, enrolled in an on-line charter school, and eventually dropped out altogether.

"I don't know what made me start to dislike school so much," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I knew it was important, but I just wasn't willing to set school as a priority."

Now, Tamarine said he's on a good path to graduate in 2016, thanks in part to earning the best grades of his life last semester: a 3.0 GPA

He attributes his new found success to the tools Gateway students get to help them manage their classwork, like tutoring sessions, and regular meetings with peer mentors.

They also get bus passes, a daily free lunch, and near constant access to staff members.

But even with those perks, the program still loses some students each year.

Last fall semester ended with 54 students; only a little over 40 returned for the spring.

But a record six are set to graduate this year. That's gratifying to advisor Michelle Atkinson, and keeps her reciting those commandments every chance she gets.

"I think sometimes those students just need to be challenged," she said. "And put into the spot where maybe they're meant to be."

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