In the News

PROVIDENCE — Lorena Arango’s student advisees at Central High School lack many of the economic and social advantages that studies show propel their more affluent peers to college and careers.

Yet these students from predominantly poor, immigrant families in Rhode Island are among the high school graduates who enrolled in college this fall — including one at Brown University.

Personal fortitude? Certainly. Resilience? For sure. Luck? That, too. But these students also have one more thing in common: They’re all College Crusaders.

A study to be published in the forthcoming issue of the New England Journal of Higher Education found that the College Crusade of Rhode Island’s GEAR UP program increased students’ chances of enrolling in college by more than 37 percent.

GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program) is a federal grant program that funds the College Crusade, which each year serves about 4,000 low-income middle and high school students in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and Cranston. Graduates of the program are eligible to receive up to $3,000 a year in scholarships toward an accredited college in Rhode Island or one of nine out-of-state schools.

The study, conducted by Neeta P. Fogg and Paul E. Harrington at the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University, tracked 249 students in Rhode Island who entered the program in 2007, in the sixth-grade, through the fall of 2014.

Students in the program were more likely to graduate from high school in four years, the study showed. And they were more likely to go to college.

Seventy-five percent of the GEAR UP students graduated high school in four years, compared with just under 67 percent of the students in a group of students with the same socioeconomic profile who weren’t in the program.

And of those GEAR UP graduates, nearly 70 percent enrolled in college in the fall of 2014, compared with 56 percent of the comparison group.

These are “dramatic results’’ not normally seen in social science research, said Jack R. Warner, a former higher education commissioner in Rhode Island who was on the College Crusade’s board when the study was commissioned in 2007. (Warner recently returned to Rhode Island and is now an associate professor in the education leadership doctoral program at Johnson & Wales University.)

The study’s findings are particularly encouraging, Warner said, because of the rigorous nature of the study. Researchers compared a cohort of 249 students in the College Crusade's GEAR UP program with a matching group of statistically similar students selected by a computer program from a de-identified state records database.

“The two basic objectives’’ of the program were to “reduce the dropout rate and raise the college going rate,’’ Warner said, “and it did that pretty substantially.’’

Why it works, exactly, is difficult to pinpoint because the program is so multifaceted. The College Crusade offers intensive academic enrichment programs during the summer and on Saturdays, tours of area colleges, assistance with college applications and one-on-one coaching by a trained Crusade adviser beginning in middle-school.

“We instill a culture of high expectations,'' said Todd D. Flaherty, president and CEO of The College Crusade. And the program gives students a lot of support.

The program’s cost, excluding scholarship awards, last year was about $948 per student. Among other things, the money pays for 25 full-time advisers such as Arango, a former “crusader” who works out of an office at Central High School.

On a recent morning, Arango, 29, was helping a group of 10 students fill out their Common Application and SAT registration forms. Her caseload this year is about 150 students, including 24 seniors.

One of her senior advisees, who didn’t have a computer or an email address, hadn’t filled out his registration forms to take the SAT and the deadline was nearing. So she’d “stalked” him — showing up at his last class of the day to see if he could stay after school to work on it. She’d even arranged to get him a pass for a first-period gym class so he could work on his Common Application. Her persistence paid off; he showed up for his appointments, she said, but the work he’d been avoiding was a rude awakening.

“He kept complaining, saying “Oh, they ask you so many questions …’’  she said.

She told him: “That’s why I stalked you!’’

While she was working with that student, she said, another 17-year-old senior showed up in a panic. Last year, when he was a junior, she’d helped him sign up for the SAT but he never showed up to take the exam. He’d finally realized that if he didn’t take the exam this time he wouldn’t be able to go to college.

“It’s literally like pulling teeth’’ with some students, she said, to get them to do the work.

Then there was Alejandro Claudio. “From the moment we met he said: ‘I’m going to go to Brown University!’ ”

Born in the Dominican Republic, Claudio came to the United States when he was 8 years old. Back then, the College Crusade recruited students starting in third grade. Claudio recalled bringing home an application that a teacher had given him that he couldn’t read because it was in English. A cousin who spoke English filled it out for him.

His father works as a welder; his mother runs a home daycare. Neither of them went to college. Claudio attended summer academic enrichment programs and met regularly with this adviser. In high school, he studied so much “he slept like two hours a night,'' said Arango, his adviser. “He never got anything below an A-plus."

He enrolled at Brown University’s summer Choices Program and fell in love with the school. He took the SAT three times, trying to improve his scores.

He graduated as class valedictorian.

When most students arrived on the Brown campus for classes two weeks ago, Claudio, 19, had already been there almost the entire summer, working and taking an introduction to econometrics class.

His scholarships cover his tuition and room-and-board, but he works three campus jobs to pay for books and other expenses. He has no car, so if he needs to get to his parents’ home on Cranston Street to help them translate some documents or just visit, he has to take a RIPTA bus or call an Uber taxi or, if he’s running late, rent a car for an hour.

Claudio credits his success thus far to having a supportive community — from his sixth-grade teacher who told him he could do anything he wanted if he worked at it, to his Crusade advisers, teachers and fellow students at Central High who helped him navigate a world that was foreign to his parents.

“Having someone outside the home [who knows] the exact reasons why things work the way they work have been crucial to my success,’’ he said. “I haven’t made [it] here alone …”; On Twitter: @LynnArditi; (401)277-7335

Source: The Providence Journal