Gateway to College programs differentiate themselves because of the wraparound supports they provide for students who have often struggled to balance out-of-school demands and stresses with their academics. These supports allow students to overcome barriers in their lives and enjoy academic success that may have otherwise been elusive. At the Gateway to College program at St. Paul College, program director Adam Kunz struggled to articulate why many of his students, when faced with difficulties, would choose flight as opposed to fighting to overcome some of their life challenges in order to succeed in school. When he was discussing his challenge, a colleague at St. Paul Public Schools helped him realize that some of his students were experiencing mental health challenges, which Adam wasn’t able to specifically articulate prior. The colleague opened a discussion with Minneapolis-based Community School Collaborative, and that discussion led to a partnership that has increased individual success for the Gateway to College students and stronger outcomes for the program.
The partnership with Community School Collaborative brought Bronwyn Cole onto the staff at the Gateway to College program. When students enter the program, they’re often coming from a situation where they may not have had a great relationship with academia and the education system. “Our goal is to meet with each of the incoming students with the intention of building trust that could lead to a confidential therapeutic relationship,” says Kunz. The staff also meets weekly as a student support team and Cole’s work at Gateway to College leads students to advocate for themselves, which helps them recognize past negative patterns and overcome those patterns. Students begin to feel that they can trust this is a situation that will support them to overcome any bumps along the way.
Kunz says that having Cole as part of the staff, where students can have somewhere safe and non-academic to run, is critical. But the staff doesn’t always wait for the students to come to them. The trust that they establish at the outset allows them to be more proactive in reaching out to students when they don’t attend school. “Student support can’t be a passive process waiting for them to come in,” shared Kunz. Cole added, “We seek them out, and stand on their porches. It takes time.” That time, however, leads to stronger student retention and an increase in program graduation rates. “I can point to several relationships where students wouldn’t be in school if it wasn’t for a relationship they had with Cole and the staff,” Kunz stated.
In July, the diligence of the Gateway to College program at St. Paul was awarded during a session at the Gateway to College National Network Peer Learning Conference in Portland. Kunz and colleague Darren Ginther accepted the Gateway Graduation Achievement Award, for exceeding the network graduation benchmark, and Kunz shared some of the programs work as part of a panel session at the conference. The work of the Community School Collaborative has received recognition as well. They were recently awarded a countywide grant from Ramsey County DHS that will provide school-based mental health much needed funding to establish more sustainable models throughout the 60-plus schools participating. Cole emphasized that their work is not cookie-cutter, as challenges differ between schools and individuals, but their work with Gateway to College is an example of a program that started with no school-based mental health and two years later is able to point to success.