Award-winning program guides Dorchester’s youth to college

By E. Wendratama

College Bound Dorchester’s College Connections program has received a Community Partnership Award from Mutual of America for its work in guiding the neighborhood’s high school dropouts toward college.

College Connections offers high school dropouts aged 16 to 27 courses in English, Social Studies, Science, Humanities and Math. The program is entirely free, and experts on staff assist individuals outside these core areas.

“We focus on students who are struggling, having a hard time, who have dropped out of high school, students that other college-focused programs don’t really work with,” said Mark Culliton, College Bound’s CEO.

“Our students are wearing a veil of disruption … doing bad things, being involved in gangs or violence. They’re wearing that cloak of negative behavior. But we don’t believe that’s who they are. We help them to take that cloak off, to allow who they really are to come through, to get into and succeed in college.”

The program currently enrolls 380 students, and recruit students through neighborhood associations and from word of mouth through current and former students.

Mutual of America, an insurance company, has been awarding non-profit organizations since 1996. Ted Herman, vice chairman of Mutual of America, presented the award to Culliton on April 4 for making meaningful contributions to the community.

“Our independent committee applauds the College Connections program for addressing the unique needs of students who have left high school prior to graduating,” he said.  The award comes with a $25,000 grant.

Since the program’s start four years ago, 88 students have received their GED and 56 students have advanced to college. Three-quarters of these enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College, a College Bound partner. Recognizing that financing for college can be a significant barrier, College Bound also partners with UAspire, an organization that provides loans to students.

College Bound has four facilities throughout Dorchester and operates out of an administrative office on SamosetStreet in Shawmut. Culliton said programs like this can help to turn an entire community. “A neighborhood stays bad because their young people stay there,” he said. “They create a pattern of negativity. To make Dorchester a better place, the young people need to go to college and leave this place. This is true in any neighborhood. That’s what we’re doing, giving them hope and opportunity.”

He said that in a bad neighborhood, the people who control the streets and make them a scary place are predominantly teens and young adults who have dropped out of high school.

“So we come and work with them, we’re going to show them a different path,” he said.

Alberto Rodriguez, 19, is a typical student in the program. He dropped out of high school, and before joining the College Bound he said he was “just on the streets.”

Two years ago, his girlfriend asked him to join the program.

“At first I didn’t take the class seriously,because I took it so I could date the girl,”he said. “It was on-and-off, it took me a while, but eventually I got it. Now I’m serious about it, and I know that I want to go to college and get a job.”

He spends every weekday in College Bound’s Little House in Savin Hill from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Jermaine Hamilton finished the College Connections program three years ago and is currently a Brandeis University student.

“I was a former drug dealer, and I went to College Bound for a second chance,” he said. “Kamau [Parker] was my educator, and I could relate to his troubled past and was inspired by his experience.”

Among the program’s educators are those who’ve made it off the streets and who have the experience to help students like Hamilton, said Parker, who has been working for College Bound for six years.

Parker said he’s happy with how Rodriguez has participated in the program.

“When Alberto joined us, he was not Alberto now,” he said. “He didn’t come here every day, didn’t follow instruction. But we just pushed him to keep coming. And at some point, something clicks, and he could figure it out by himself. That’s what we do to our students.”

Parker also said it’s important for the staff to have the same vested interests as the students do. “We’re looking for staff who come from the same community. It gives us a different piece of leverage to stand on when we talk to the students. Trust is a very important thing. The students need to trust us,” he said.

Culliton said College Connections succeeds in guiding 26 to 28 percent of the students through the program and on to college.

“It’s a low percentage compared to our other programs that have 50 to 80 percent. But without any programs, students who go to college are between 6 to 11 percent,” he said.

He said this year’s budget is $1.8 million, with $300,000 coming from government sources, and the rest coming from the private sector.

College Connections plans to enroll 600 students and increase its budget to  $2.6 million by 2017, said Culliton. “We hope 60 percent of the budget would be from government,” he added.

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