Creating Community During Crisis

As he starts the third week of remote instruction, Erik Murrell is juggling a lot of balls, and calls. Attendance is critical, so at 9:00 a.m. each day, he and his staff call each student who has not logged in yet for morning classes. Several times, he has needed to follow those calls with calls to the local cable provider to obtain internet service for the family of a student who does not have access. Erik is the director of the Gateway to College program at Gateway Community College in New Haven, CT.  He and his staff are dedicated to helping a group of high school students who need additional resources to be fully successful.

ATD’s Gateway to College is an early college program for students who have dropped out of high school or who are unlikely to graduate in a traditional setting. Students in this program have an opportunity to re-engage with high school on a college campus while earning college credits. The opportunity to take college classes is a powerful motivator for students who have previously struggled with education. Gateway’s primary tool to keep students engaged and on track is personalized coaching, which can identify additional supports the student needs while fostering a sense of belonging for students. During this period of school closures and isolation, students in the  Gateway program depend on those relationships more than ever.

Typically, the Gateway program is centered around connectivity and being together in a safe place on campus. And, it can be difficult to reproduce those elements over the phone or through a computer. For students facing homelessness or abuse or just living in an over-crowded environment, social distancing compounds existing problems. As Erik explains, “For many of our students, home is not the sanctuary that you and I enjoy.”
The challenge is not for the students alone. Classroom management is a whole new world when online classrooms extend into the homes of every student. This new context requires for everyone in the home of a Gateway student to adapt and that takes time.

While social distancing has created challenges for students and for staff, Erik’s program is part of a network of more than 30 Gateway to College programs at ATD colleges across the country that are finding creative ways to stay connected with their students. Erik, his staff, and their peers nationally are doing everything possible to re-create the positive, affirming environment of the program and demonstrate that through caring relationships. And, thanks to those relationships, students are continuing to thrive.
Erik misses the ability to keep students on task when they are all physically on campus, but the same qualities that he uses when running an in-person program, patience and flexibility, have been indispensable in supporting his students and staff spread across the city.

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