As he starts the third week of remote instruction, Erik Murrell is juggling a lot of balls, and calls. Attendance is critical, so at 9:00 a.m. each day he and his staff call any student who has not logged in yet for their morning classes. He follows those calls with calls to the local cable provider to obtain internet service for the family of a student who does not have access. As the director of the Gateway to College program at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut, Erik and his staff serve an unlikely group of college students, struggling high schoolers.
Gateway to College is an early college program for students who have dropped out of high school or who are unlikely to graduation in a traditional setting. Gateway offers students an opportunity to re-engage with high school on a college campus—while earning college credits. The opportunity to take college classes is a powerful motivator for students who have previously struggled with education, but Gateway’s primary tool is personalized coaching that fosters a sense of belonging. In this period of school closures, Gateway students depend on those relationships more than ever.
Typically, the Gateway program is centered around connectivity and being together in a safe place on campus. And, it can be difficult to reproduce those elements over the phone or through a computer. For students facing homelessness or abuse or just living in an over-crowded environment, social distancing compounds existing problems. As Erik explains, “For many of our students, home is not the sanctuary that you and I enjoy.”
The challenge is not for the students alone. Classroom management is a whole new world when online classrooms extend into the homes of every student. Even though they have provided computers to each of their students, it is taking time to adapt to this new context. Erik shared a story of a recent class that was interrupted when a student was trying to get a member of his family to turn the music down. Instructors don’t just have 25 students in their classrooms, they have 25 students and all their families.
While social distancing has created challenges for students and for staff, Erik’s program is part of a network of more than 30 Gateway to College programs across the country that are finding creative ways to stay connected with their students. Erik, his staff, and their peers nationally are doing everything possible to re-create the positive, affirming environment of the program and demonstrate that through caring relationships. And, thanks to those relationships, students are continuing to thrive.
Across the network, there are inspiring stories of Gateway students who are achieving success under adverse circumstances. One such student in New Haven is a young woman whose mother was hospitalized, yet she has maintained near perfect attendance while being the primary caregiver to seven younger siblings. Another young mom in New Haven has turned this crisis into an opportunity. She had previously been late to class nearly every day because her daughter’s childcare did not open until 9:00, the same time that her first class was scheduled. Since the transition to remote instruction, she has been early to class every day.
Erik misses the ability to keep students on task when they are all physically on campus, but the same qualities that he uses when running an in-person program, patience and flexibility, have been indispensable in supporting his students and staff spread across the city.
The Gateway to College network is convened by Achieving the Dream, which provides technical assistance and support to programs in 20 states. We may be physically isolated in our homes, but our network is finding new ways to build community and foster caring relationships with our students.