Gateway Program Provides Pathway to College for ‘At Risk’ Students

Josh Gibson tried to attend middle school the day after his father died unexpectedly from a heart attack, but, understandably, he could not focus on his schoolwork. The then 12-year-old Decatur, Ga., boy barely made it through his first class before bursting into tears. The teacher sent him home.

That day only seemed to foreshadow what would, for many years, become of his educational career. Gibson slumped into a deep depression, and before long the former A student was skipping school regularly. His grade point average plummeted below 2.0—an unfortunate trend that followed him as he bounced around to six different schools.

By the time he’d emerged from the fog of sadness, Gibson found himself involuntarily withdrawn from high school due to chronic tardiness. He resumed that his dream of attending college would remain just that—an elusive dream.

“I was actively depressed, and I didn’t want to go to school,” recalls Gibson, now 22. “I thought I’d messed up my chance to go to college forever.”

That all changed five years ago when Gibson enrolled in the Gateway to College Academy on the Clarkston campus of Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), a community college just outside Atlanta. The academy helps students like Gibson get back on track by helping them simultaneously earn both high school and college credits. Many eventually graduate with enough credits to transfer into GPC or other colleges as sophomores.

“I liked that [the staff] had the confidence in me that I could do it,” says Gibson, now a junior psychology major at Clayton State University. He plans to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees and then settle into a career in social work or psychology.

“I liked the constant support and the fact that they won’t tolerate any nonsense. If I were to be dramatic, I’d say that the program saved my life.”

Dual enrollment programs for advanced students with high GPAs are fairly common. This alternative high school, however, is unique in that it exclusively targets students considered at high risk for dropping out.

Ninety students between ages 16 and 20 are currently enrolled in the GPC program; most (85 percent) are African-American. Typical Gateway enrollees include those who have not yet completed high school; are behind in credits for their age; or have high school attendance problems prior to the program.

The first semester focuses on college preparatory work. By second semester students are immersed in the college curriculum. Along with providing a flexible schedule for students who need to work or tend to family obligations, participants also have access to intensive tutoring and are assigned a “resource specialist” who helps them navigate personal problems and set academic goals.

“Oftentimes people automatically assume that students who drop out are not intelligent, but a lot of the time they leave because of other circumstances in their life,” contends Gateway program director Robert Wigfall. “We provide a flexible schedule and they like the mature environment. When you put students in a smaller, more intimate environment with people who genuinely care about them,

they tend to respond to that.”

Modeled after a successful program at Portland Community College (PCC), the Gateway program is offered at 35 colleges in 20 states across the country. The early college model is part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Early College High School Initiative. The Gateway to College National Network (GtCNN) provided startup

funds for the GPC program.

“We’re finding more and more [educators] are becoming more receptive to this approach [to education],” says Nick Mathern, associate vice president for policy and partnerships for GtCNN. “I think there’s a clear understanding that there’s a need for change; not enough students are getting to the finish line. We see Gateway as an

opportunity to address that.”

GPC’s program is free for DeKalb County, Ga., residents, but students are required to pay $275 to the college each semester (most students average four semesters).

A comparison of the program’s graduation test results with other alternative schools in the DeKalb County system indicates that students are doing exceptionally well.

In fact, in its first year, 100 percent of the students aced the state-mandated writing test; 92 percent passed the language arts portion.

Seventy-one percent passed the math portion during the same timeframe. Test scores have remained consistently strong as the GPC program marks its seventh year.

Head resource specialist Jade Holley says extensive student support is key.