College and career readiness programs build pipeline, promise for Milwaukee workforce

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United Community Center staff believe it’s never too early to start talking about college. That’s why as part of daily morning announcements at its Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, a student shares their college and career aspirations with their peers.

That wasn’t always the focus. As little as 10 years ago, UCC concentrated mainly on helping students graduate from high school. With less than one third of their parents having done so, it seemed like a major milestone. But leaders realized a diploma alone does not prepare students for a career and so over the years UCC has expanded its precollege programming to include ACT prep, college visits and bilingual parent and student workshops on topics such as financial aid.

“The most successful economically and culturally vibrant cities are those that have highly educated populations,” said Jackie Harcourt, UCC’s director of development. “We truly believe we’re building a strong future for Milwaukee.”

UCC, along with College Possible Milwaukee and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, are three Greater Milwaukee Foundation-supported agencies that provide the necessary tools, intense preparation and ongoing support to help students navigate the pathway to college and beyond.

“We know students have the potential if we arm them with the tools to get to their destination,” said Jeannie Fenceroy, senior program officer who manages the Foundation’s education portfolio.

Alverno College senior Blanca Sierra is one of those students living out her potential. Her parents made it clear that not going to college was not an option. But she is the first in her family to do so. Sierra credits UCC, where she attended school since kindergarten, with educating her family on the process.

“Being a first generation student, I didn’t know the process about applying,” Sierra said. “(My parents) struggled because they didn’t know what questions to ask and they didn’t speak perfect English to ask the questions.”

UCC’s program translated materials for her parents and other Spanish-speaking families and offered bilingual classes and workshops. Those added services were something her parents greatly appreciated, said Sierra, who now is serving as a role model for nieces and nephews who attend UCC’s Bruce-Guadalupe Community School.

College Possible also works with first generation students. Both agencies provide rigorous ACT prep, knowing the higher the score students achieve, the more options they have and more likely they are to find a school that best fits their needs. Before taking what College Possible Executive Director Edie Turnbull calls “the real deal,” students will have taken a practice exam four times over the course of a year.

The agency started as a college access program called Admission Possible. Yet obstacles remain once students enroll. Turnbull says it now provides additional coaching and support to help students through their college journey, including the summer before they actually start on campus. Through a program called Summer Bridge, which started three years ago, the nonprofit works with students in those three months before their freshman year to make sure that the transition is as smooth as possible. They discuss such things as the importance of taking of advantage of a professor’s office hours and joining a club or organization early on to help meet other students. For those students who participate, 94 percent enroll in college.

And for those who don’t? College Possible works with them until they do.

“Once you are in (College Possible), the only way you can get out is by earning your degree,” Turnbull said.

Each year it sends about 300 students to college. Ideally, Turnbull said a relationship lasts from six to eight years, depending on life circumstances. This is the first year it will have participants graduate.

Knowing what students want to do beyond that time – and knowing which courses to take and colleges to attend to get there – is just as significant. That’s where GMC’s My Life! My Plan! comes in. The career exploration program pairs high school freshmen with employers like GE Healthcare to expose them to different opportunities. Through online career assessments, small group workshops, and onsite tours, students learn about in-demand careers. The program has engaged more than 400 volunteer coaches, taught nearly 1,700 students and become the cornerstone of Milwaukee Public Schools college and career readiness curriculum.

“If you don’t have anybody saying you need to stay with this because it is worth it, it is too easy to drop out,” Turnbull said. ‘We just refuse to let that happen.”

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