Helena College University of Montana: Access to Success

Member Spotlight

Kristin Grue doesn't teach a typical high school English class, and maybe it's because she doesn't teach in a high school, or to typical students. Grue is a teacher for the Access to Success program at Helena College University of Montana. The program aims to re-engage youth who have dropped out of high school, by bringing them to college.

Access to Success is a high school diploma completion program with an emphasis on earning a professional certificate or degree while completing high school requirements concurrently. All coursework is provided in an adult learning environment. The program is housed on the Helena College campus. Eligibility is limited to those between the ages of 16 and 21 who do not have a high school diploma, are not currently enrolled in school, and meet minimum reading levels. Students begin Access to Success as part of a small cohort group. Maintaining small class sizes is essential to creating a supportive environment. All students begin by taking a course titled Strategies for Success while concurrently taking course prerequisites for their high school diploma or career path. Each student is supported through individual case management. Students also have access to all the college support services provided on campus.

Bringing together school district personnel, college personnel, and community members to identify the needs of the community was the first step in creating the program that serves as a model dropout recovery/reengagement program in the Helena community. The innovative partnership with the Helena public school district is the only program of its kind in Montana.

Program director, Kari Sutlovich, is delighted with the success of the program since its inception in 2008. "The faculty and staff here are supportive and encouraging. They really embrace our students. We're integrated into everything." Students who drop out of high school often bear the stigma of not being able to handle high school or academic rigor. Not true, says Sutlovich. "A typical high school history class is delivered in one academic year from September to May. Because our students have schedules similar to a college student, we are able deliver that same history class in one semester."

Access to Success provides just what its name suggests. When presented with access to higher education, an estimated 45 percent of Access students continue on to pursue certificates or degrees at Helena College, with many ultimately transferring to four year colleges to further their education. Elizabeth Stearns Sims, Dean of Student Services at Helena College, is proud of the fact that students earn a high school diploma rather than a GED. Program graduates participate in the college's commencement ceremony each May. "When students cross that stage and receive their diploma, they realize a new sense of accomplishment.  Many times, that sense of accomplishment is what drives them to enroll at our college. They already feel at home on our campus, so why not continue on to complete their college degree?" Because students take both high school and college courses, Stearns Sims emphasizes that you cannot tell the difference between an Access student and a Helena College student.

Bill Noland enrolled in Access to Success after choosing to leave high school two years ago. "Enrolling in Access is probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. I love it here. If it weren't available, I might have looked into getting my GED, but I doubt it." Then he beams and says, "I'm getting my high school diploma in May!" Noland explains that in high school he'd "gotten in with a bad group of kids" which led to his grades going downhill. "Then I got in trouble with the teachers and I felt like they didn't like me, so I slacked off. Eventually I just gave up."

When asked what makes this program different than high school, Bill said, "The way that the classes are spaced out. I have time to do my homework and do it well. It's actually harder work than I was doing in high school, but my grades are better than they've ever been. This doesn't feel like a job or something you're forced to do. This is something I want to do."

Bill intends to enroll in the Automotive Technology program at Helena College in the fall of 2013 and pursue a career as an automotive technician. "You know, I've always heard that a GED is just as good as a diploma. I don't agree. When you're applying for a job, I think the GED applicants go further down in the pile than the high school diploma applicants. Now, I'll have both a high school diploma and a college degree. I never dreamed this was possible."