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Ohio high school dropouts give college a try
Mentors, rules and expectations are part of the Owens college program

The 11 commandments of Michelle Atkinson are part of the college experience for high-school dropouts.
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In The Region:
Like all of Ohio's major cities, high school dropouts are a tough problem for Toledo. One of the reasons students say they leave is because a traditional school setting just isn't a good fit for them. But a Toledo community college program is offering an alternative: Place high school dropouts in college classrooms. StateImpact Ohio's Amy Hansen has more:
LISTEN: A college experience for high-school dropouts

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Owens Community College staffer Michelle Atkinson regularly hands 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” in bold letters across the top.

“Never miss class, pay attention in class, pretend you’re interested even when you’re not,” they begin.

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

Problems in high school? Go to college
She says 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. 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. They take classes in reading, writing, math and college skills.  From there, they take classes that satisfy the requirements for a high school diploma and earn them college credits. 

Gateway Director James Jackson says it’s a novel approach to helping kids at risk finish school. Rather than try to coerce them back to their public high school, or steer them to alternatives like on-line charter schools, “basically, we’re taking kids who were not successful in high school and putting them in college and expecting them to be successful.”

Not for all
Jackson says 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 in-person interviews.

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

“Are they the victim in all of their stories? Are they the heroes in all of their stories? Or do they have that balance that most of us have. … 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.”

Gates foundation and other support
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. The agreement between the Toledo schools and college lists which Owens classes can be taken in place of a traditional Toledo Public Schools course.

Those who complete the program get a Toledo high-school diploma. And once their high school requirements are met, students can earn additional college credits by taking some of the campus’ electives.

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

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

Tools, from tutoring to mentors -- and college credit
“I don’t know what made me start to dislike school so much. I knew it was important, but I just wasn’t willing to set school as a priority.”

Now, Tamarine says 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. They include tutoring sessions and regular meetings with peer mentors.

The students 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.

The fall semester ended with 54 students; 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, who keeps her reciting her commandments every chance she gets.

“I think sometimes, those students just need to be challenged, and put into the spot where maybe they’re meant to be.”

Related WKSU Stories

Community colleges peg their hopes on advisers to prevent students from dropping out
Monday, February 3, 2014

Life issues lead to dropping out of school, which creates new life issues
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

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