How Can Communities Create On-Ramps to Get Students Back on the College-Going Track?

October 2015

Students who have either fallen off or are at risk of falling off the pathway to college must be provided with on-ramps to help them re-engage and prepare for college success. Communities can re-engage students by remediating their academic needs prior to college and by accelerating their college application process. Likewise, communities should offer adult learners comprehensive support with college readiness and enrollment, including GED test preparation and adult-based education. By continuously assessing students along the college pathway, communities can provide targeted, timely support.

Beyond college readiness and enrollment, communities need to help construct pathway models to ensure that all students are also career-ready and have access to training and employment services. Partnerships between community- based organizations, institutions of higher education, social service organizations, and local businesses are integral to creating on-ramps that get students back on track. Below are a few examples of programs that have been used to help disconnected youth, adult learners, and others who aspire to get back on the college-going track.

Adult-Based Education Programs: Does your community want to provide adults with educational opportunities to acquire basic literacy, employment, postsecondary education, and training? These programs help adults gain the academic knowledge required to earn a college degree and enter the workforce. Adult-based education programs may also offer classes, such as cooking and parenting, to develop life skills that would assist adults in juggling their various responsibilities.

GED to College Programs: Does your community want to provide pathways for disconnected youth and adult learners who have not earned high school degrees? These programs help students who have not earned high school diplomas prepare for the GED and offer further pathways to college and careers, by providing GED test preparation, intensive advising, and transitional support.

National Dropout Recovery Programs: Does your community want to reconnect students and adults who have dropped out of high school or who are in danger of doing so? These programs empower youth and adults who have dropped out of high school or who are significantly behind in credits and unlikely to graduate with the opportunity to earn a high school diploma while progressing toward a college degree or certificate.

Remedial Education: Does your community want to reduce the rate of remedial education and time needed for students to complete their degrees? These programs seek to increase the number of students placed into college-level courses upon enrollment. Remedial education programs target and work with students who have been identified as at-risk students to ensure that they are prepared by their senior year to take college-level courses.

Workforce Development Programs: Does your community want to offer programs that combine education, vocational training, work experience, and youth development activities in order to link educational plans with career opportunities? These programs support youth who dropped out of or struggled in high school to obtain postsecondary vocational credentials. They work to provide educational, training, employment, and support services to help students determine a pathway to a long-term educational and/or employment goal. There are also workforce development programs that focus on adult learners, helping them to achieve greater economic mobility with postsecondary credentials.

The following section features an interview with the chief academic officer of Our Piece of the Pie, in Hartford, Connecticut; it highlights how the organization helps 14- to 24-year-olds navigate barriers to obtaining high school diplomas, college degrees, or vocational certifications, in order to become economically independent. We include a handout to help youth development services working with disconnected youth, a program model for a contextualized bridge curriculum designed to serve disconnected youth and adult students who wish to continue their education and professional development, as well as a term-by-term planner to help students studying for the GED. This chapter ends with a list of additional resources, where you can find more information on how to create on-ramps to get disconnected students back on track to college.

Our Piece of the Pie, Hartford, Connecticut: Supporting Over-Age, Under-Credited Youth in College Readiness and Access

  • Bob Rath, CEO, Our Piece of the Pie
  • Christopher Leone, Chief Academic Officer, Our Piece of the Pie

IHEP spoke to Bob Rath and Chris Leone from Our Piece of the Pie® (OPP), a non-profit organization based in Hartford, Connecticut, that provides academic, social/emotional, and vocational supports to 14- to 24-year-olds who have fallen behind in school; who have dropped out; who face financial and legal obstacles; or who are navigating other barriers to success. By using a relationship-centered model, OPP helps youth navigate these barriers and build plans for their futures through direct, sustained mentoring services. Read this interview to learn how Our Piece of the Pie partners with school districts and community colleges to provide students with sustained academic and wraparound support services.


IHEP: What is the mission that drives Our Piece of the Pie’s student outreach model?

The model is driven by the needs of our community. Our mission is to help urban youth become economically independent adults. We pursue this mission by providing underserved students with the tools, supports, and resources they need to achieve economic mobility and sustainability, and to lead healthy lives. Students who have dropped out of school or who face significant socio-economic or judicial obstacles have specific needs often beyond what school districts are typically able to address. At OPP, we have developed a model that allows us to best serve the specific needs of our students.

We typically work with young adults who are a year or more behind in high school. We want our students to successfully complete high school and then be prepared for success in college and the workforce when they leave.


IHEP: Describe the OPP model and how your organization has established partnerships with local school districts?

At OPP, we employ a relationship-centered approach that integrates three fields of practice: education, workforce development, and youth development (think social/emotional development). Each student who participates in an OPP program is matched with a Youth Development Specialist (YDS). The YDS works with the student to identify long-term goals and to develop a plan that connects students with academic, workforce development, and youth development services to achieve these goals.

With this direct support model as our foundation, OPP serves youth and young adults in two ways. Youth throughout the community are able to access our services directly through OPP. We serve students from 60 different high schools in the area, participate in extensive outreach, and also accept students by referrals. OPP also operates three high schools through partnerships, contracts, and charter agreements. The high schools employ the same relationship-centered mentoring model alongside certified teachers, who provide a competency- based learning curriculum that is proven to be particularly successful with students who have fallen behind in school or who have dropped out. The workforce development component includes a career competency development curriculum and both paid and unpaid internship experiences.

Our first district partnership with Hartford Public Schools formed Opportunity High School in 2009. The superintendent at the time had heard of our model and asked us to partner with the district to provide our services, operate all aspects of the high school curriculum, and provide all mentoring and wraparound support services. Hartford School District co-governs the school and is responsible for administrative decisions, such as hiring teachers and staff. Our work operating high schools really grew from there.

In 2012, Bloomfield Public Schools contracted with OPP to operate the Learning Academy at Bloomfield. We have a five- year contract with Bloomfield to provide all aspects of our school model, where we serve about 15 to 20 students per year. We are just beginning the fourth year of the agreement.

In 2013, the State of Connecticut Board of Education approved OPP to serve as the Charter Management Organization for Path Academy Windham. Path Academy can serve up to 200 over-age, under-credited high school students in the Windham, Connecticut, community. To support student success, the school employs our academic, workforce, and youth development model, and our competency-based curriculum.

We look for districts that will take ownership and acknowledge that provision of services for this population is essential to addressing the drop-out problem—otherwise they won’t do the hard work.

IHEP: What does OPP look for in its partnerships with school districts?

In a strong partnership, both the school district and the non- profit are totally focused on the mission and moving forward to evolve and address the needs of over-age, under-credited youth. We look for districts that will take ownership and acknowledge that provision of services for this population is essential to addressing the drop-out problem—otherwise they won’t do the hard work. The school district and local community must have the will to work on this issue; they must have the will to find internships and job-related opportunities, and to support this population in their education.

We are now much more thoughtful and methodical in making sure that we fully vet potential partners. We have a specific agreement we work out to make sure everyone is on the same page. First and foremost, we want to know why the district wants to do this. If I’m on the district side of the table, I want to know that the non-profit I’m dealing with is not a fly-by-night organization. If I’m on the non-profit side, I want to make sure that the district truly understands the scope of work, what’s going to be delivered, and how it’s going to be delivered.

IHEP: How are you working with other community partners from other sectors?

We partner with community colleges both to provide dual- enrollment and campus-visit opportunities to our high school students and to facilitate OPP’s model at both the high school and community college levels.

On the community college campuses, OPP provides YDS mentoring, Family Involvement Workshops, and Workforce Development Support. The YDS provides the same one-on-one mentorship to students as with other OPP programs, and YDS assists students with accessing resources, social/emotional development, and self-efficacy. We currently partner with Capital Community College and Asnuntuck Community College.

As part of our work with Asnuntuck, OPP has developed partnerships with local industry to support career pathways in precision manufacturing, insurance, and allied health professions. We worked with the community to assess the needs of the local economy and then worked with both employers and the college to establish pathways for our students to attain careers that will provide them with a family- sustaining wage.

The OPP Workforce Development Team collaborates with local employers to secure job shadowing, internships, and employment opportunities for the students we serve. We offer Career Competencies Development Training, an interactive classroom and hands-on job readiness training program to help students learn about careers and learn job-searching, interviewing, problem-solving, and money-management skills.

IHEP: How are partnerships with school districts established?

For any community interested in establishing a similar support program for youth, it is essential to first perform a needs analysis and assess public will for the program. Decisions makers must see the program as a priority and be willing to work with you to approach funders, business partners, and districts. Once this support is established, it is much easier to work with the districts.

When we begin a district partnership, we work with a number of individuals from the school district. Depending on the district, the superintendent and/or the chief academic officer may be at the table. We work out logistics for the partnership with legal counsel, financial representatives, and council members. The partnership agreement then has to go to a board vote, and then it can move forward.

We perform a needs analysis of the district to ensure that realistic expectations are set; then we establish goals for the students and the school, and develop a plan and timeline for rolling out services. It’s not routine, because every community and every setting poses a unique set of challenges. Different boards of education have varying amounts of control, and superintendents have different relationships with their board. I do believe it gets easier with each new partner, however, and we build off the work we’ve already done each time.


IHEP: What specific services and supports does OPP provide?

As mentioned earlier, our model takes a relationship-centered approach to providing academic, workforce development, and social/emotional supports to youth and young adults. This includes ensuring students are receiving the appropriate supports in both math and reading in order to graduate ready for entry-level, credit-bearing college courses. It also means supporting students in postsecondary planning, in terms of college applications, essay writing, financial aid application assistance, college tours, and college overnight stays, if necessary. In some cases, we work with probation officers to address issues that have posed barriers to the student’s educational attainment in the past. We also offer social service information so that we can offer assistance to families who need it—for example, we help young mothers find clothes for their newborns and children. It’s a vast program, because our aim is to tear down barriers.

To continue to receive public support to fund this work, you have to show results—and you have to learn to tell your success story with your data. For this reason, we have made it a priority to track outcomes through data and have used the success of our model to drive new funding and partnership opportunities.

The YDS meets with the youth weekly to set goals, including academic goals, behavioral goals, and attendance goals. The YDS is the central service provider and oversees student attendance at the schools. They’re the ones reaching out, making contact, and following up with parents and students. If necessary, on cases where there are multiple absences, they make home visits. The YDS is also the go-to person if the youth has a problem, including peer problems or other problems in their communities. Youth have a single person to provide support in all of these different areas, so it’s important that this is someone with whom youth are meeting consistently.

One of our tenets is family engagement. This takes many forms, including conferences, phone calls, home visits, and parent– teacher conferences. Our expectation is that we are in contact every single month with all of our parents. Some of our youth are essentially their own parents; some of the youth are parents themselves. So, there are many different facets to this part of the work.

IHEP: How have you funded this work?

OPP was initially a small non-profit organization that provided support services to many underserved populations in our community. In July 2005, we refined our mission of helping urban youth become economically independent adults to focus on serving youth and young adults (14–24 years old) only through our relationship-centered support model. We received funding from foundations prior to officially launching the new focus of our organization. We also received funding from the Youth Opportunity Grant that allowed us to build the foundation for our work. These initial investments were critical to building our model.

In terms of the funding needed to actually set up locations for services, the first question is whether you have access to a facility or whether you will need to rent space. Regardless, you’re then looking at furniture, Smartboards, and technology integration—which will be anywhere from a quarter to a half a million dollars. From there, you’re looking at per-pupil cost, which depends on the complexity of the program. Just providing wraparound services could be in the neighborhood of $5,000 per youth. If we’re providing full academic services as well, it will depend on the size of the program, but it could range from about $8,000 to $13,000 per youth.

To continue to receive public support to fund this work, you have to show results—and you have to learn to tell your success story with your data. For this reason, we have made it a priority to track outcomes through data and have used the success of our model to drive new funding and partnership opportunities.

As districts and foundations become aware of the success of our model and the potential to scale the model, they reach out to us.

IHEP: Describe Path Academy’s competency-based blending-learning model?

The curriculum combines computer-based learning with teacher-led instruction. Research shows that over-age, under- credited youth do best in school when this approach is used. The curriculum is project-based, including digital content and teacher support. The model focuses on integrating the use of technology into everyday learning in relevant and meaningful ways that prepare our students for success in today’s job market. The computed-based, teacher-led, project-based learning leaves a lot of room for differentiated instruction as well.

The competency-based learning model also allows us to use a mastery-based progression rather than the traditional seat-time approach. This model lets students earn credits more quickly in the areas that come easier to them—and lets them spend more time on areas that they find more difficult. The mastery-based approach is especially helpful for over-age, under-credited youth because many of these students have already attended some portion of a given class in the past, and they often disengage if they have to sit through the entire course, including the parts they already covered and understand. Mastery-based systems are designed to ensure that students are prepared to move on to the next level of coursework; they enable teachers to monitor each student’s progress in order to better guide students on their individual learning paths.

The competency-based learning model also allows us to use a mastery-based progression rather than the traditional seat- time approach. This model lets students earn credits more quickly in the areas that come easier to them—and lets them spend more time on areas that they find more difficult.

IHEP: How is Path Academy using data to track student success?

We use Edgenuity as our primary online learning tool at Path Academy, which has an extensive data management system. It tailors lesson plans to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, fills content gaps, and uses diagnostic and concept-mastery exams to determine individual learning pathways. The tool is flexible and personalized, and has been particularly useful in supporting students with special needs, such as English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are performing below grade level.

The data from Edgenuity, including grades from online work, are shared with the student information system, which also tracks attendance, disciplinary incidents, schedules, and communication with students. Case management data are entered into OPP’s Efforts to Outcomes system, which allows staff to track parental contact, student contact, social/emotional development, student plans and goals, and postsecondary education preparation. All of these databases feed into OPP’s reporting database to provide snapshots at the student, staff, class, and school levels, which then are used to identify areas of success and areas for improvement. The system provides a central repository and allows staff to compare and contrast school and student performance within a single source.

IHEP: What policy changes would you suggest to school districts to support over-age, under-credited youth? One example is attendance policy. Many districts adhere to punitive attendance policies that take credit away from youth for absences. These policies fail to address the root cause of the absence problem; in turn, they establish an additional barrier to the student’s long-term academic success. Credit policy is another example. Some districts award credits not incrementally but rather by quarters or semesters. If a student does not complete the quarter or semester, the student will not receive any credit. Requiring students to complete content they have already mastered but for which they have not received credit presents a major barrier to sustaining student motivation. This is why the competency-based model is so effective with this population. Competency-based learning models empower students to prove their aptitude, accelerating rather than impeding their progression toward degree completion.
Punitive attendance policies that take credit away from youth for absences. These policies fail to address the root cause of the absence problem; in turn, they establish an additional barrier to the student’s long-term academic success.


IHEP: What outcomes have you seen among the youth you serve?

Eighty-one percent of OPP youth in Hartford graduate from high school on time, compared to the overall graduation rate in Hartford of less than 50 percent. On average, 77 percent of OPP youth graduate from high school and enroll in an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or postsecondary vocational program. The retention rate of OPP youth who enroll in community college is 87 percent, compared to 52 percent for full-time students overall.

We are currently serving 1,000 students. This year, 118 youth who participated in our program graduated from high school. Sixty-three of these students graduated from one of our high school programs, and the other 55 graduated from local schools. Additionally, 90 students who have participated in our programming graduated with a postsecondary credential/ degree this year, and 70 have retained employment for 12 months following placement. We are data driven and are continually assessing our numbers to ensure that we are serving our students.

Looking Forward

IHEP: What is OPP working on next?

The Hartford Board of Education recently approved a five- year agreement for us to transition Opportunity High School into Opportunity Academy, beginning with the 2015–16 school year. The district will pay $8,800 per over-age, under-credited student for OPP to provide student services. This agreement will allow OPP to have increased autonomy and to incorporate the competency-based learning curriculum we administer at Path Academy. We’ll be providing differentiated instruction for up to 150 students in grades 9–12, 204 days a year, with internships and individualized education plans. All students will have access to our relationship-centered approach.

Chapter 6 Download


Handout for Youth Development Services

This is a handout on postsecondary planning for OPP youth development specialists.

Page length: 2

Bridge Curriculum Program Model

This sample template explains how to provide a contextualized, career-focused curriculum, developed by the LaGuardia Community College. The model provides sample topics and instructional strategies.

Page length: 2

Term-by-Term Planner

Created by Umpqua Community College and the National College Transition Network, the planner helps adult students track their GED test scores, update goals (as needed), and predict anticipated time to degree completion.

Page length: 2

Additional Resources

ABE Career Connections: A Manual for Integrating Adult Based Education into Career Pathways (2010: MPR Associates, Inc.)

This manual provides an overview of career pathways and highlights approaches used by Adult Basic Education Career Connection sites, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to align training and partnerships efforts. The manual includes information on student recruitment, orientation, and placement; course development; partnerships; and data collection and analysis.

College Impact for Opportunity Youth (2012: FSG)

This report focuses on the specific needs of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed. The report identifies the priority needs of this population and provides step-by-step strategies, such as a “Collective Impact” model, to guide communities in aligning policies and resources in order to collectively meet these needs. The report includes guidance on building stakeholder engagement, securing funding, developing a common community agenda, and establishing metrics to measure programmatic success.

Reconnecting Opportunity Youth: Education Pathways (2012: Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives)

This brief describes several cross-sector programs to help disconnected youth progress to and through postsecondary programs. Supports include transitional services, career pathways, and paid internships. One program, Gateway to College, uses dual enrollment to enable students who dropped out of high school to enroll in community colleges. These students earn a high school diploma and college credit while receiving wraparound services for social and emotional needs.

Getting to the Finish Line: State and Metro Strategies to Increase College Completion by Returning Adults (2013: Higher Ed Insight)

This resource provides guidance to states and cities on implementing practices and programs that have been effective in increasing college completion by returning adults. It identifies the specific roles states and cities can play in this effort and outlines strategies for increasing outreach and marketing to adults, coordinating the delivery of targeted support programs across state postsecondary institutions, and assisting institutions in the development and implementation of these programs.

Municipal Action Guide: Reconnecting Youth through Dropout Reengagement Centers (2013: National League of Cities)

This municipal action guide profiles strategies across the country that city leaders can use to help disengaged students finish high school, prepare for postsecondary education, and gain valuable workforce skills. The guide offers numerous examples and ideas for city leaders who are considering how best to add re-engagement to their local youth-serving infrastructures. These strategies are drawn from a growing national network of re-engagement centers, which offer a range of services—such as individual academic assessments, opportunities to explore different education options, and referrals to appropriate schools and credential programs.

Promoting Postsecondary Success of Court-Involved Youth: Lessons from the NYEC Postsecondary Success Pilot (2013: National Youth Employment Coalition)

In 2009, the Postsecondary Success Initiative Pilot, through partnership with 10 community organizations, analyzed strategies and best practices to support postsecondary access and success for court-involved youth. This paper summarizes the National Youth Employment Coalition’s (NYCE) findings on interventions that promote postsecondary success among this group of students. Specifically, the paper outlines what the NYCE learned about practices, strategies, and the role that partnerships can play to inform and improve program design, implementation, and policy. Based on these findings, the paper also offers recommendations for practice, policy, and systems change that can promote postsecondary access and success of court-involved youth.