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How Portland, Ore., Is Translating Student Grit Into Success

June 6, 2014
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How Portland, Ore., Is Translating Student Grit Into Success
Future Connect finds first-generation or low-income kids — with heart — and gives them scholarships, peer support and individual counselors to help them get through college.

Josh Hoffman was the first student to get choked up, but he wasn’t the last. He had taken the stage at the commencement ceremony that he and his fellow students never imagined they would see. Thanks to Future Connect — an education initiative in Portland, Ore., that provides scholarships and support for at-risk students through high school to community college — Hoffman and a dozen others in the room had made it.

Now, halfway through his final address celebrating his graduation from Future Connect, Hoffman was fighting back tears. “Throughout the course of this term, the homework, the papers, the volunteer work, it was hectic,” he said, his voice trembling. “But I chose to do it. It was my choice as an adult…trying to be a mature adult.”

Like all of the students who receive the program’s coaching, counseling, tutoring and scholarships, which can reach up to $3,400 per year, Hoffman has a background that is pockmarked with drama. In his case, it’s “trouble with the law, all my life,” he says. “Assaults, fights, minor theft… I was on a downward slope. I didn’t even get my diploma. I dropped out my senior year of high school.”

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Hoffman found his way back to school with the help of Future Connect, the rare educational program that seeks out troubled kids like him. Founded in 2011 as a partnership between the Portland Community College Foundation and the cities of Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro — which share the costs — Future Connect combines scholarship money with career guidance and personal counseling.

There are ample initiatives aimed at preventing students at high risk from dropping out of school. What’s unique about Portland’s program, says Tobias Sherwood, a Future Connect college success coach, is its continuity. “A lot of times, the system level of services is more about what’s happening now: Get a student food, a GED, a diploma and that’s fine,” Sherwood says. “But what I love about Future Connect is that we take them with us to college. We get them in, support them while they’re here, and help them get to whatever’s next.”

The vast majority of Future Connect participants are just like Hoffman: low-income students of color in need of either remedial or English as a second language coursework. They are often the first in their families to consider college. Students of such backgrounds may get there, but they’re unlikely to hang around, often because they run out of money. The average retention rate at Portland Community College and similar institutions for such students nationwide is an abysmal 20 percent.

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Future Connect starts by searching for high school students with a certain degree of “grit,” says program manager Josh Laurie. In fact, it’s the chief factor that determines who gets a scholarship. Students complete an application that includes short essays explaining their career goals, obstacles they’ve overcome, personal accomplishments and ways they’ve made their own families and communities better places to live.

“We’re looking for students who show perseverance and determination to get through high school,” Laurie says. “We’re not looking for a student to have a 4.0 GPA. If you have a 2.5, raised a family and still completed high school, that’s what we’re looking for.”

Once accepted, students are divided into “cohorts” (or groups) of 50 to 200 students, where they are assigned a coach (like Sherwood), who serves as their guide through high school and college. Future Connect participants start their first terms at community colleges with a “college survival” course taught by their coach that covers the how-to of signing up for classes, applying for financial aid and finding various on-campus resources. After that, students in a cohort enroll in the courses that meet their individual needs, though the goal is to try to keep them together with other Future Connect participants as much as possible. The more they get to know each other, the more they’ll help each other out — which increases the likelihood of success for all.

The program has already seen results. Of the 144 students in the very first cohort, in 2011, 70 percent stayed in school. That number jumped to 93 percent for the most recent term, during which Future Connect enrolled 200 students.

Laurie says the success of the program lies in its ability to plant a seed in the minds of high school students who may not even be thinking of college while they are dealing with heavy issues. “They might be homeless, or they’re trying to get clean and sober,” Laurie says. Many are convinced they can’t afford to go. An explanation of how financial aid works can change that perspective. “Now it goes from pre-contemplative to ‘I can do this? It’s not going to be a burden on my family?’”

The combination of coach and cohort keeps the program’s participants from slipping through the cracks. “I came to college expecting to fail, because it was all I did in high school,” says Jacqui Pacheco, 20, a student at Portland Community College. After falling in with a rough crowd during her sophomore year, she experimented with drugs and started cutting class. She was expelled from high school, and her parents thought her best option was to go to work for her aunt, making fishing supplies. But Pacheco was readmitted to high school under a program that requires random drug testing. Soon after she found Future Connect, and two years later, she graduated from high school, on time. Now, she’s considering becoming a drug and alcohol counselor.

Pacheco credits much of her success to her coach, Sherwood, who’s “like my counselor,” and to the friends she’s met in the program.

Another program graduate, John Chan, says that after dropping out of high school he thought he would be heading back to the Philippines to work for his mother, convinced he’d wind up homeless there. When he first enrolled in Future Connect, he says, “I didn’t even know where to put the period.” Now he passes out rolled-up copies of a novel he wrote last term and is planning to study engineering after transferring to a four-year college.

And then there’s Hoffman, who juggled a full course load with a full-time job at Little Caesar’s. Sherwood, his coach, helped him through all parts of the college system, showing him how to register for classes and apply for financial aid, and he even reviewed some of his coursework. Sherwood also made himself available to Hoffman to talk about any other problems he was having outside of school, and they brainstormed about how to solve them together. “Josh popped in all the time,” Sherwood remembers.

Hoffman’s final assignment for the program was to write a graduation speech that answered the question “What is my role in the community?” Though he veered off course a little during the ceremony, what he really wanted to say was thanks to a group of teachers and administrators and, especially, to Sherwood (who had stuck with him since he was in high school), for giving him a chance he never thought he would have. “It’s hard out here, and you guys do so much for us,” he said in his address. “I really appreciate it. Thank you.”

If not for the program, “I’d just be working,” he says, probably slinging pizzas. Now he’s planning on attending a four-year college and pursuing criminal law, maybe to become a judge one day. “This changed my life. I shouldn’t be here, but I am.”

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