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Darius Payne and Kristin Kadlec celebrate at the end-of-semester party for Middle College students.
Photo: Bristol Community College
See video featuring Payne at the end of the article.
With coffee shops, wineries, taco joints and an influx of young people, it’s easy to confuse downtown New Bedford, Mass.—the former whaling capital of the world—for Boston’s college scene.
Just minutes from salt-water ravaged fishing vessels swaying in New Bedford’s historic harbor, this slice of downtown real-estate doesn’t seem to “fit in” with the rest of the city.
New Bedford’s whaling and fishing industry for decades provided jobs on the south coast of Massachusetts. However, with the decline of the fishing industry came a decline in New Bedford’s economy. The once thriving industrial city is now a state leader in high school drop-out rates, unemployment and poverty.
On a corner in downtown New Bedford sits Bristol Community College (BCC), a fixture in the neighborhood for just over 11 years. In fall 2011, BCC, with partial support of a $150,000 donation from the J.B. Fernandes Trust, collaborated with the local school system to develop a high school program to reduce the number of high school drop-outs in the city. The idea was simple: address the drop-out issues in the city and you will address the subsequent unemployment and poverty issues.
Focused on at-risk students
Through collaboration with the New Bedford public school system, BCC launched its Middle College that fall with 20 students—all of them high school drop-outs or students at risk of dropping out. In the program, students take dual-enrollment college credit courses that apply towards their high school diplomas as well as their college degree.
“New Bedford had a need to improve high school graduation rates, and we saw a chance to help,” said Frank Romanelli, director of Middle College. “In this economy, a GED just isn’t enough. Through Middle College at BCC, we are helping to address a really serious need in our community: getting people educated and ready to move on to higher learning and eventually careers.”
The key to the initiative is a strong relationship between the college and the schools.
“BCC and the New Bedford high schools are both working to meet the same goals for these young people,” said Kristin Kadlec, student navigator for Middle College . “We all want to see these kids succeed in high school then move on to continue their education. To do that, they have to graduate. We meet bi-weekly with drop-out counselors from the area high schools, identify students at risk and get to them early.”
Of course, getting into Middle College isn’t quite that easy. Students must pass placement tests and go through an interview process before admission to the program. These personal interviews allow program leaders to gauge whether prospective students are ready for the workload of dual-enrollment courses.
Seeds of success
In just one year, Middle College has yielded success. What started as a 20-person cohort boomed to nearly 70 this past September, with more growth expected as the program continues to send high school grads out into the real world. Program leaders attribute the jump in enrollment to not only the partnership with the local schools, but word-of-mouth endorsements from current students to friends or family in similar circumstances.
“I was out of high school for five years before a friend recommended Middle College to me,” said Michael Camara, a first-year student in the program. “So I took the placement tests, I got accepted and now I’m on my way to my degree in business entrepreneurship. It’s tough, balancing family and school—I do have a three-year-old at home—but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Being in that cozy, hipster paradise of downtown New Bedford doesn’t hurt either. Many of Middle College’s students have cited the college atmosphere—and the difference between a college classroom and a classroom in an urban high school—as helping them to succeed.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere being in a class with other college students,” said Christian Ramos, a Middle College grad who enrolled at BCC in September. “Just being on campus is great. There’s always a place and time to study, which helps because I just started a new job, so I’m pretty busy now.”
Serving the community
BCC President John Sbrega sees part of the college’s role as determining the needs of the community and meeting them.
“Middle College is a great example of the power of public-private partnerships and collaborations with local high schools,” he said. “We’re giving second chances that will change lives, and that benefits everyone involved.”
To date, Middle College has seen five students complete the program and earn their high school diplomas. Of those five, three have enrolled at BCC with a fourth planning on enrolling this spring.
(Below) Darius Payne, a student at Bristol Community College's Middle College, talks about the challenges in his life that prompted him to drop out of high school.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges