RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If you come from a poor family you are more likely to drop out of high school and if you drop out and stay out of high school, you are more likely to be, or become poor. Today we're going to hear about one way of pulling out of that cycle. In the receding wake of Hurricane Katrina we're airing stories about getting out of poverty or near-poverty. We're traveling to the country to hear about ideas that show promise. NPR's Neva Grant reports on a program in Portland, Oregon.
NEVA GRANT reporting:
This story begins with a story. Years ago when Mary Kelly(ph) was 16 she went to see her high school counselor about her plans to go to college.
Ms. MARY KELLY (Counselor and School Teacher): And she told me, well, I don't know why we should even bother because your family is so dysfunctional, you're on welfare and, basically, statistics say that you're not gonna amount to much--and I remember getting up and slamming the door and then I got in trouble for slamming the door...
GRANT: And then she got a bachelor's degree and a master's. She is now a counselor and a teacher and she tells that story to her own students.
Ms. KELLY: Some students just kind of like press their elbows into their ribs like, oh, my gosh, you know, I can relate to that. My dad's like that me, or that's what my high school insinuated--didn't have to really say it. For many students it's a real struggle to say: I'm gonna make it a passion of mine to do just what you think I can't do.
GRANT: Which is what they're trying to do here in Portland...
Unidentified Speaker #1: Good morning ladies and gentlemen...
GRANT: In a program called Gateway to College.
Unidentified Speaker #1: All right. We're gonna be talking about conflict today...
GRANT: The students in this program are mostly high school drop-outs trying again for their diplomas but the idea here is that they'll get a taste, even a thirst, for college by taking classes at college. That's where they are now, at Portland Community College in an entry-level class on life skills.
Unidentified Speaker #2: ...till you've tried to come to an agreement, even if it's an agreement to disagree.
Unidentified Speaker #1: Is it always possible?
Unidentified Speaker #2: No.
GRANT: They earn high school and college credit for their classes here, so if they get their high school diploma, they're that much closer to a two or four year college degree.
Mr. RYAN SWEENEY(ph) (Gateway to College Student): When I read about it, like, my mom brought home the paper, she talked to me about it, you know, I was like, oh, this is gonna bite, you know.
GRANT: Eighteen-year-old Ryan Sweeney started Gateway to College about two years ago.
Mr. SWEENEY: Then I read it and I was like, huh, I can go to college, you know, I have this nothing GPA and I can still go. Sign me up! Show me where to sign, you know.
GRANT: And if you're wondering why a student with a nothing GPA should go to college, well, remember that's part of the point of this program and it screens for students who have the skills and drive to try again. It also offers things that most high schools can't--small classes, a lot of counseling and a message that many of these students want to hear: you're not a kid anymore.
Mr. SWEENEY: I don't want to be an at-risk youth. I just want to be Ryan, the adult--and I think if I act like an adult, I am an adult.
GRANT: There was that phrase Ryan used, at-risk youth. Every student here seems to have their own way of defining it.
Ms. TORY CLARK(ph) (Gateway to College Student): I was a waitress at a diner and quit that job and was a waitress at a pizza bar.
GRANT: Tory Clark worked those jobs for a year after dropping out of high school three times. Waitressing was hard, she says. Now she talks about getting a high school diploma, a four-year degree and a career.
Ms. CLARK: I don't want to be assistant manager and then manager and still be working at the same place for the rest of my life. I don't want the same job I had when I was 16 when I'm 30.
Ms. LINDA HUDDLE (Director, Alternative Education, Portland Community College): My name is Linda Huddle and I'm director of alternative education at Portland Community College. If we're truly working on social equality and issues of poverty, our perspective is that all students can be successful in a college environment and we're here to help them be successful.
GRANT: And they don't charge for it. Tuition and books for the program are free. It's a novel approach, high school drop-outs attending college, and now it's national. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions of dollars to launch more programs like this. But Gateway demands a lot from students who already lead demanding lives. Forty percent drop out for a few terms or forever. Others earn their high school diplomas but don't stay on for their college degree.
Ms. JESSICA VAN DYKE(ph) (Gateway to College Student): Like right now I've done two years of this and I'm just on a complete burn-out where I just wanta, you know, I wanta finish up and get outta here.
GRANT: Nineteen-year-old Jessica Van Dyke expects to get her high school diploma next month. She lives with her boyfriend and now wants to get a job.
Ms. VAN DYKE: I try to think of, you know, here and the now. You know, if I don't get a job, if I don't make the money then we're gonna end up getting evicted for not being able to make rent and right now my boyfriend's paying all the bills and it doesn't go well (laughs).
(Soundbite of baby crying)
Ms. VAN DYKE: You want down?
GRANT: No school, no program, can tell you how to live your life. What Gateway to College does is lay out an ambitious itinerary and hope that students will follow it which brings us to one more person in the program, C.C. Cretarolo.
JULIA: Bib, diapers...
GRANT: At this moment she's getting ready to baby-sit at her sister's place.
JULIA: Here's the funny one.
Ms. C.C. CRETAROLO (Gateway to College Student): Yep
JULIA: I (unintelligible) somewhere in here.
Ms. CRETAROLO: Okay.
JULIA: Remember how to put 'em together?
Ms. CRETAROLO: Yeah.
GRANT: C.C. is 17 and lives with her dad. Sister Julia is 21 and lives in a subsidized apartment with her boyfriend and her two kids.
JULIA: 'kay squeakers, mama's gotta go. Here is auntie.
Ms. CRETAROLO: Hey buddie...
GRANT: Julia is about to catch the bus to her job serving sandwiches at a sports arena.
JULIA: I love you. Have fun. There's plenty of movies. The Grudge is actually kind of scary.
Ms. CRETAROLO: See ya.
(Soundbite of door closing)
GRANT: After Julia leaves, C.C. puts her sister's baby down for a nap and settles herself down into the sofa.
Ms. CRETAROLO: You know, everybody that knows me and my sister is just like, okay, Julia's taken her pass and C.C., she's the one that's gonna succeed, she's the one that's going to, you know, go all the way, go to college and, in a way, I don't like talking about that because, you know, I don't, it could make me seem like a little bit of a snob.
GRANT: C.C. talks about her own childhood as if it ended a long time ago. Absent mother, adoptive family, her 15th birthday spent on the streets, she dropped in and out of high school before enrolling in PCC. As she talks, she glances up at the pictures of her sister's kids tacked to the wall.
Ms. CRETAROLO: You know, I'm kind of a second mother to both of her kids. I want to show them that they have limitless options. I guess what it is, is that the one thing that I am actually truly scared of is not making a difference in anything. You know, just being obscure, sitting back and letting life pass by as I'm trying to barely survive. I would probably, you know, hate myself if I let myself do that.
GRANT: C.C. Cretarolo hopes to get her high school diploma at PCC and then a college degree. She's not sure what she'll major in but she says people tend to tell her their problems so maybe she'll go into social work. Neva Grant, NPR News, Portland, Oregon.
MONTAGNE: Explore the true cost of dropping out of high school at NPR.org. Next Monday, poverty, work, and faith.
Unidentified Speaker: The government can't just change the mindset of the people. The truth of the matter is that it's gonna take the Word of God.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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