2014-09-05 / Front Page

Students start out a step ahead of peers

By Jason Glynn
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – For the last two weeks, while many recent high school graduates were enjoying the end of summer, 16 Portland public schools graduates were positioning themselves for a better future. Recent Deering High School graduate Brian Cobb, 18, of Portland, and 15 of his peers just finished an intensive two-week pilot program called MySuccess at Southern Maine Community College.

The program was a collaborative project between SMCC, Portland public schools, and Portland ConnectED. Funding was provided by a $125,000 two-year grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation.

All the students were deemed academically at risk. MySuccess is intended to smooth the transition to college and increase participants’ chances of success at the college level.

According to SMCC President Ronald Cantor, “Less than 50 percent of high school graduates will complete a college degree, and nearly 90 percent of traditional freshmen enrolling at SMCC need to take at least one remedial course,” so the need to increase the potential for success is imperative.

The program used software from Pearson Education, a supplier for books and other academic resources, as well as support from numerous faculty and students at SMCC to immerse participants in an intensive course focused on remedial math and English.

If students don’t have sufficient SAT scores when they enroll in college they must take the Accuplacer – a placement exam for math and English. Participants used MyFoundations Lab – a computer-based application made by Pearson Education – to brush up on their math and English skills and prepare for the placement exam.

“I really enjoyed the [MyFoundationsLab] software, I was able to go at my own pace and I liked how it took me through the steps,” Cobb said.

Participants took a preliminary Accuplacer exam before the program to gauge where they were and to focus the direction for the following curricula. After two weeks, all were retested and most saw a notable increase in their test scores.

“I found this program to be very helpful, my Accuplacer test scores improved, I am more familiar with the campus, and I even got a nice scholarship … I’m now ready to succeed,” said Cobb, a recent Portland High School graduate who will pursue a degree in computer technology.

The participants received a $200 stipend for attending, a $500 scholarship for their first semester, and a dedicated coach to help guide and support them while at SMCC. At $2,700 (plus fees) yearly for a full-time student, SMCC offers one of the lowest tuitions in New England, according to its website.

The dedicated coach for all 16 students is Maggie Loeffelholz of Portland, and she is committed to student success. She will be in the SMCC’s Office of Student Success as the MySuccess coach in a grant-funded position.

Loeffelholz has a passion to help others succeed and has the experience to prove it. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2008, she spent time working for Americorps at Deering High School in Portland as part of the Make it Happen! Program, which focused on helping immigrant students’ transition to college.

The two-week MySuccess schedule included a rigorous dose of math and English, but was complemented by a mix of fun activities from nearly every discipline – from art to health sciences. Participants created artwork, used a trebuchet and learned how to administer CPR.

“Seeing the simulation lab and learning CPR in the health sciences building was awesome, it broke up the coursework and showed us more of what this college has to offer,” said Cobb.

All participants were required to take a Freshman Interest Group class where they explored their own interests and career options.

They even earned a college credit for the class, Loeffelholz said.

Participants also gained more than just a better sense of self and a few points on their exams. Loeffelholz said one benefit of the program is that students will be far ahead of their incoming freshman peers.

“While here, they became acclimated with the sprawling campus that can become confusing to navigate when thousands of students descend on it in fall, they also networked with faculty and other successful students. One student even already landed a work-study position in security,” she added.

Efforts by Portland ConnectED, a program that serves as a bridge to resources for Portland students, have shown that giving vulnerable students that extra bit of support is crucial to their success.

At SMCC, like many other colleges, there are far more students than advisors, so that personal touch is not easily achieved. The program stands out because, “it provides a personal connection to an advisor that many students don’t have … I can better focus on their needs, and their success,” Loeffelholz said.

That sentiment was shared by participants.

“It is great that I have someone I can always go to now whenever I have a question about college, someone that is passionate about my success, that extra support will surely make a difference,” Cobb said.

Staff members at SMCC are already looking forward to the next MySuccess course and planning more fun events. Loeffelholz said the program will be again be offered next fall, but facilitators are looking at ways to expand the program.

“We are hoping to grow this program and offer it to a bigger group, impacting even more people, and increasing their chances of success,” Cantor said.

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