“Some of the youth out there struggle to find a path. Some struggle to discover if there even is a path out there to follow their dreams—and some don’t even know they are allowed to dream.” These were the powerful words of a young college graduate named Jean Dolin at the 2017 graduation celebration for Success Boston—our city’s college completion initiative.
Dolin, who was born in Haiti, explained that he had struggled with immigration and money issues, but with the help of his Success Boston coach he had prevailed. Now he believes passionately that “we can only hope for a better future if we invest in our young people,” and plans to dedicate his life to doing everything he can to make that hope a reality.
Supporting, motivating and mentoring students as they follow their dreams is at the heart of Success Boston’s coaching model. The coaches, who are employed by local nonprofits, work with high school students in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and follow them into and through college, then help to connect them with careers. It is a model that has a proven track record of helping students stay in and complete college. The initiative’s goal is to dramatically increase college completion rates for BPS graduates—making Boston one of the first cities in America to take responsibility for the success of its students beyond high school.
Sparked by a stunning report in 2008, which showed that only 35 percent of BPS graduates who enrolled in college received a college degree in seven years, Success Boston took shape as a groundbreaking partnership of the Boston Foundation, the City of Boston, the BPS, the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), 37 area institutions of higher education—led by UMass Boston and Bunker Hill Community College—and nonprofits across the city.
In just 10 years, Boston’s high school graduates are enrolling in and completing college at record rates: 52 percent of the BPS Class of 2011 graduates who enrolled in college the first year after high school completed a degree within six years—up from just 41 percent for the Class of 2000. Comparisons with national results are even more encouraging. The six-year college completion rate for first-time fall 2011 enrollees at the nation’s two- and four-year colleges was 61.7 percent, compared to 55.2 percent for BPS graduates.
That is remarkable, since more than 80 percent of Boston’s high school students are low income and many are the first in their family to attend college, whereas national rates include not only urban schools with similar students, but suburban schools that serve middle-class and even affluent populations.
Many of Success Boston’s students are not only low income, but are immigrants who face language and cultural barriers as well as all of the other hurdles young people have to clear before making it through college.
Zainab Suleiman spoke no English when she arrived in the United States from Nigeria in 2008 at age 14. She attended Madison Park Vocational Technical High School, right around the corner from her home in Roxbury, but when her classmates graduated in 2013, she didn’t have enough credits to graduate with them. She did, however, find her way to Boston’s Re-Engagement Center, a partnership of BPS and the PIC, which works with students who have been disengaged from school. It was there she learned about Success Boston. Her Success Boston coach through the PIC, Tamika Williams, has helped her excel at Roxbury Community College and earn the credits to attend a four-year institution. She plans to attend either UMass Boston or Cambridge College.
“Tamika’s support, advocacy and college-knowledge have allowed me to navigate the obstacles I’ve faced,” says Suleiman. “Whether I need help with scholarships, financial aid, course registration or even personal issues, I know I can count on her.” Suleiman describes the lives of first generation college students as “complicated” and plans to reach out to other students who could benefit from coaching, adding: “I want to be an ambassador for Success Boston.”
Another Success Boston ambassador is Edward Pena, the first member of his family to attend college. He credits his West End House Boys and Girls Club coach, Portsha Franklin, with encouraging him to stay in school even when he needed to work more hours to help his family through a tight time. “It was hard to find time to study and I really thought about leaving school for a while. Then Portsha said, ‘You have a lot on your plate, but I know you can handle it.’ And she was right. She really does know me.” Pena is a sophomore at UMass Lowell and plans to go on to get his Masters or Ph.D. in behavioral analysis and research.
Karen Escolero, who attends UMass Boston with the goal of becoming a nurse, says that coaches can see “the bigger picture,” something that it is crucial for students who are feeling stressed by the demands of college. “I’m the first in my family to go to college and it can be overwhelming,” she explains. With Success Boston coaching, however, she learned to set priorities and create a calendar to organize her time.
“It is hard to exaggerate the growing importance of obtaining a college degree to success in work and in life in the United States,” says Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul Grogan. “The typical Bachelor’s degree holder earns on average nearly twice what the typical high school graduate earns. It is because of this—and because of all of the positive trends we are seeing—that the Boston Foundation and all of our original partners are continuing our commitment to Success Boston. We’re dedicated to staying the course.”