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Grant funding to boost MassBay disparity plan

Jared Lindh

Massachusetts Bay Community College (MBCC) recently received a $40,000 grant from The Boston Foundation to fund its Young Men of Color (YMOC) Initiative, part of the Wellesley Hills school’s effort to address disparities in academic achievement between young male minorities and their white counterparts.

“This grant reflects our commitment to helping Boston high school graduates make a successful transition to college,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of The Boston Foundation, which provides funding for civic-minded nonprofit organizations. “[YMOC] will sharpen our understanding of just what services and supports can have the greatest impact on young people striving to get the education they need to join in the region’s knowledge-based workforce.”

The initiative will provide a support system tailored to MBCC’s black and Hispanic male population. Though YMOC was established in the spring of 2008, the project had been in the planning stages since athletic director Bill Raynor’s arrival at the college four years ago.

According to Raynor, YMOC was born out of concern for the persistent failure rates of students in certain demographics at the college, as well as throughout the state and country.

“If you look at institutional research, it shows that young black and Hispanic males have the lowest GPA rates, which can lead to [academic] probation or dismissal from school,” said Raynor.

A pair of recent reports revealed significant problems in the college success and graduation rates of Boston’s public high school graduates, especially students of color and those from low-income households.

A study prepared for the Boston Private Industry Council by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that black and Hispanic students were far less likely to graduate from college than their white and Asian counterparts, while a Boston Foundation report tracing the city’s “public education pipeline” revealed a troubling relationship between students’ socioeconomic background and their success in school.

“The ultimate measure of Boston’s success — on its own terms and as a model for the nation — will be in breaking the stubborn link between socioeconomic status and educational attainment,” Grogan wrote in the report, released in December 2008.

MBCC President Carole Berotte Joseph said she sees the problem as having its roots at home.

“Generally speaking, these are not young people that have had role models in their lives,” she said. “Traditionally they did not have support mechanisms in their homes. Between not having role models and seeing their parents struggle, they really don’t have a lot to aspire to.”

However, Joseph added, that cycle can be broken with added support and encouragement.

“When [students] get through high school and make it to college with people supporting them and really telling them they can succeed, they can do it,” said Joseph.

The centerpiece of the initiative’s approach is the hiring of “learning specialists,” or subject-specific tutors, to assist students in need. Raynor said that the bulk of the grant money will be used for these specialists, who will be available for all subjects, including perennial problem areas like algebra, pre-calculus and biology.

While on-campus support centers of this kind are not new, YMOC’s architects recognized that one of the chief reasons for the achievement disparity is a lack of access to such services.

Because MBCC’s campuses are located in Wellesley Hills and Framingham, travel issues make it harder for many students who live in areas like Dorchester and Roxbury to get the academic help they need. As part of the YMOC outreach, the community college has reached agreements with a number of local community centers, enabling the initiative’s learning specialists to work with students closer to home.

The student support will also extend to the “business” side of college, according to Raynor. YMOC will offer students one-on-one assistance in course selection, financial aid and tuition management, which he said can be intimidating for some students.

“They need somebody they are connected to, who’s like them and comes from where they came from, to help them negotiate the various bureaucracies,” said Raynor.

The program’s focus on cultural matters will include monthly student-led forums designed to invite discussion of a range topics, from the role of hip-hop in popular culture to the societal implications of the use of the “n-word.”

The key, Raynor said, is helping students to make the commitment to take a more active role in their own education.

“I’ve seen a lot of cases where students go to institutions and just disappear into the woodwork,” said Raynor. “They don’t participate in the programs and take advantage of the services.”

The Boston Foundation grant will support YMOC for one year, after which it can reapply for extended funding. President Joseph said the college understands that, given the uncertain financial climate, the initiative’s success alone would not guarantee financial support. But if the foundation cannot back another year of YMOC, Joseph said she is confident that MBCC will be able to find alternate sources of support.

“Overall at MassBay, my motto has been access and excellence,” said Joseph. “We just think this is the right thing to do, serving one of the most underserved populations on campus.”