Tag Archive | "Education"

For Bronx women, some help on a tough road to college

Lorraine Valentin works with her students at Grace Outreach. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Lorraine Valentin, in black t-shirt, works with her students at Grace Outreach. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

It was lunchtime, and Lorraine Valentin’s students were ready for a break.  But not before the 27-year-old Valentin ran through a few more math problems.  She was up, and down, and up again, bouncing from student to student in her General Educational Development (GED) prep tutorial at Grace Outreach in Mott Haven.

“It’s like having Rosie Perez as your math tutor,” said Andrew Rubinson, 49, the nonprofit group’s executive director.  “She’s Bronx all the way.”

Indeed, Valentin has been in the Bronx since her family moved to the borough from Puerto Rico when she was a year old, and she’s been a tutor and teacher’s assistant at Grace Outreach for three years.  A lean operation with just three teachers and six tutors, Grace Outreach has helped 565 women earn their GEDs.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 133 of 244 Grace Outreach students who took the GED exam, or 55 percent, passed; an additional 34 were what the program refers to as “two-steppers,” or students sent by teachers to take the exam since they were likely to pass three or four of the test’s five sections, meaning they would only need to focus on the remaining one or two when they re-take it.  While the Community Service Society reported last year that there is no centralized city reporting of GED program success rates, it’s clear that Grace Outreach’s pass rate of 55 percent is substantially better than 47.5 percent, pass rate for GED exam-takers citywide.

The pictures of Grace Outreach’s GED graduates line the hallway of the nonprofit organization’s space on the fifth floor of Immaculate Conception, a Catholic elementary school.  Valentin was one of those women.  She came to Grace Outreach in 2007 after watching her “draining financial aid” finally dry up at for-profit Monroe College.  Monroe accepted Valentin without a GED to take both a GED prep course as well as start an associate degree in business management.  She wasn’t prepared for the latter, and fell behind.  “I realized I wasn’t making credits,” Valentin said.

She maxed out her aid before she had her GED and then found Grace Outreach advertised at a local church and made a call.  With just two weeks of attention at Grace Outreach, she passed the test.  “I came in, and we just got things done!” she said.  The staff was so impressed they offered her a full-time tutoring job.

Grace Outreach grew out of Grace Institute, a New York City institution founded by chemical company chief W.R. Grace in 1897 to help low-income women secure jobs.  In 2005 his great granddaughter-in-law, Margaret Grace, opened the nonprofit’s doors, with a mission to help Bronx women with jobs and education.

While Valentin said she considers herself lucky, she still wishes financial constraints didn’t make getting back to college so difficult.

“College prep is really about three things – money, money, and money,” Rubinson said.  Grace Outreach piloted a college prep program nearly two years ago to help students, 90 percent of whom are Grace Outreach GED graduates, make smart decisions about financing their college educations.

It’s a program model that is likely to start cropping up around the country. President Barack Obama is pushing for the United States to regain the global lead in college completion by 2020.  Approximately 37 million Americans aged 25 to 64 have started but dropped out of college.  That’s equivalent to about one-fifth of the nation’s workforce.

The Obama-backed initiative places special emphasis on community colleges, which educate 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates.  The president’s focus on community colleges is also being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced it would donate $34.8 million over five years for a competitive pool of grants for proposals to increase the graduation rates of community college students.

Professionals at Grace Outreach believe that structure and encouragement are essential in that quest to college completion.  The organization’s college prep program manager, Carol Williams, said most of her students have the potential to go to college, but there was no one there to support them.  Williams, 39, developed, runs, and teaches the two-year-old curriculum for three hours every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon.  The goal of her teaching is to prepare students to take the City University of New York (CUNY) placement test, which covers reading, writing, and math; students who pass these are exempt from taking remedial courses when they enroll at a CUNY school.

This can mean the difference between staying in college and dropping out, Williams said.  She said 95 percent of her students receive full financial aid packages from CUNY; a student who is using that aid solely toward college-level coursework is much more likely to graduate.  Those who drain down their aid on remedial work often quit when the money runs out.

Williams’ course begins with a placement test to gauge how much students know in the math, reading, and writing subjects that will be tested.  The next week, Williams and her colleagues begin working hand-in-hand with students as they complete their college and financial aid applications.  Grace Outreach subsidizes the $65 CUNY application fee, so students only pay $30 themselves.

For three months, students vigorously prepare for the placement test.  Those who started in Williams’ class this September will take the test in mid-December; they will have an opportunity to take a CUNY-sponsored 20-hour prep workshop and re-take the test in early January if needed.  This maximizes the chance that students can collect exemptions prior to the start of CUNY courses in late January.

Williams never has more than 20 students in her class.  Of the 36 total who applied to college in the pilot year, 31 were still enrolled in those colleges in September 2009.  Some of the schools they attended were two-year institutions like Hostos Community College and Bronx Community College, and four-year institutions like Lehman College and John Jay College.

“I’d love to go back to college to become an official math teacher,” said Valentin.  “I will be going back.”  At the end of her workday, she still asks the teachers at Grace Outreach to give her challenging problems to do at home; she and her six-year-old daughter sit down to do their homework together.  She plans to enroll at Bronx Community College as soon as possible.  Grace Outreach is working to provide a loan that will make it happen.

Teaching Forward from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Southern BronxComments (1)

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