Palo Alto College forms partnership with Communities In Schools to bring students back to higher education

For the first time, Communities In Schools will begin working with college students, forming a partnership with Palo Alto College to help get students who have dropped out to return to school and pursue their education.

A nationwide nonprofit, Communities In Schools works in K-12 schools to help kids at risk of dropping out stay in school and graduate. Under the partnership announced Tuesday, Communities In Schools of San Antonio will work to re-engage community college students who have left and help them re-enroll.

“Graduation from high school is not enough for our kids,” said Jessica Weaver, the organization’s San Antonio CEO. “That can’t be our north star. That cannot be the only thing we are striving for our kids.”

At Palo Alto College, many students are the first in their families to pursue higher education, and nationwide the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic shock waves have resulted in a decline in community college enrollment.

Gilbert Becerra, vice president of student success at Palo Alto College, said the partnership idea began a year ago, when the college talked to Communities In Schools about what they were doing with students in K-12 schools and asked how those efforts could be replicated at a college level.

“You really begin to realize that education is key. Education is critical for our community,” Becerra said. “Students [drop out] for lots of different reasons. Let’s find out what those reasons are.”

One story Weaver related was about a student who dropped out as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, feeling too much stress and emotional turmoil to continue her education. During a home visit with a Communities In Schools representative, the student asked, “I can really come back?” and she did.

Earlier this month, Communities In Schools of San Antonio received a $7 million gift from MacKenzie Scott as a part of a $133.5 million donation to 40 Communities In Schools branches and its national office. Weaver told the San Antonio Report the $7 million will help the nonprofit expand the services it offers in more than 160 schools across 12 San Antonio school districts. Scott also donated $20 million to Palo Alto College in December 2020.

For local students, Weaver said the familiarity of many San Antonio students with Communities In Schools will help them be more open to reaching out for help.

At Palo Alto College, Communities In Schools has added two re-engagement specialists. Out of 949 former students who have been contacted, 320 of them, or 33%, re-enrolled for the fall semester, according to Weaver.

Some students who received visits from Palo Alto officials had family members who got sick so they had to work rather than attend school. Some others cited incidents like car accidents that caused them to drop out, resulting in long stretches out of school.

Palo Alto College representatives visited 240 homes of former Palo Alto students as part of efforts to bring students back.

“Never have I ever heard of a college or a university taking this step,” Palo Alto College President Robert Garza said.

Often, asking for help is a hard conversation for students to have, but Garza said the college offers resources for students facing barriers to continuing their education.

For students who have children and can’t afford childcare, Palo Alto offers a family center. For those who can’t pay an electric bill or lack housing or food, partnerships with the college and CPS Energy, the San Antonio Housing Authority and the San Antonio Food Bank can help encourage them to see a way to resume their studies.

“I’m excited about it— not because we’re the first, but because this is the right thing to do,” Garza said. “We can no longer say that it’s OK for our students to drop out and not be successful.”

Palo Alto College business entrepreneurship major Chantz Boyd is a student who has worked with the Communities In Schools re-engagement specialists. Boyd, a young father and full-time student who was working two jobs, received more help than expected: He got a turkey for his family on Thanksgiving and a new camera for his computer for his online classes.

“Our goal is to listen to our students and their needs and the needs of our community to provide program offerings and services that lead to an educated population and workforce,” said Gene Sprague, Alamo College District board chairman.