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A Gateway to a second chance

All Jason Picarello wanted was to play basketball, and he was going to do just that at Roman Catholic High School. That is, until a kneecap shattered.

A model program that began in Oregon , Gateway to College will be replicated at 20 community colleges around the country. Brendon Comer, program director, attends orientation.
A model program that began in Oregon , Gateway to College will be replicated at 20 community colleges around the country. Brendon Comer, program director, attends orientation.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Inquirer Staff Photographer

All Jason Picarello wanted was to play basketball, and he was going to do just that at Roman Catholic High School. That is, until a kneecap shattered.

"That killed my dreams to be a basketball player," Picarello said.

While his knee healed, he studied at home, but he was falling behind. The thought of going back to his old school was too daunting, so he tried Furness High School. He lasted one day.

For the next four years, he worked, always in menial positions.

"I was getting all the bad jobs. 'Clean this,' " the South Philadelphia 19-year-old said.

Then he heard about a new program at Community College of Philadelphia called Gateway to College. Dropouts got to earn high school diplomas and college credits at the same time. Still, he balked.

"My mom made me," he said. "She drove me up here."

Today, he has a new dream - to earn his bachelor's degree and go into business. He says he has Gateway to thank.

"I love it," Picarello said. "Everyone's here to work. They're not here to play around and meet people."

Gateway, soon to start its second year at CCP, is accepting new student applications for the fall 2007 semester.

A model program that began in Oregon seven years ago, it is slated to be replicated at 20 community colleges around the country with the help of money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation. CCP's program is also supported by the Philadelphia School District.

Gateway's goal is to reconnect dropouts with their education and put them on the road to college.

The program came at a time of growing realization that Philadelphia has a dropout crisis. A report last fall by Johns Hopkins University researchers revealed that from 48 to 54 percent of Philadelphia students who started ninth grade between 2000 and 2005 graduated in four years. The rates improved to between 61 and 63 percent after six years. The rest dropped out.

For some, a change in environment makes the difference.

"Some of them didn't fit into the traditional high school model," said Brendon Comer, director of CCP's Gateway.

The students come in with issues: teen parenthood, poverty, homelessness, family or legal problems, substance abuse, to name some.

"A key part of what we work on is reframing the way they look at themselves," Comer said. "A lot of them have a lot of experience being looked at in a negative way."

For that reason, each student gets a Gateway academic coordinator who works closely with them, troubleshooting issues as they arise. The program also pays for tuition and books.

To apply to Gateway, students have to be 16 to 20, out of school one semester or more, and test on at least the eighth grade reading level. Applicants must live in Philadelphia and have previously attended a city public high school.

The application process is winding down, but some of the 60 new slots for the fall 2007 semester are still available, Comer said. Applicants attend an information session and take a reading test. If they pass it, they return for two more days of tests. Finalists are called back for an interview.

If they get in, they will be expected to put in 100 percent attendance, do three or four hours of homework a night, and pass all their courses with a C or better.

Gateway students say what they get back is worth it.

"This felt like my last chance," said Gentris Jointe, a Gateway student from Southwest Philadelphia.

A soft-spoken 19-year-old, Jointe was an A student in grade school, active in clubs. But in high school, he found it hard to fit in.

At Parkway Center City High School, he got into "confrontations" with other students. His grades slipped. He got expelled. At Furness, he said, a rumor went around that he was a snitch. He started getting threats. For a while, he went to a suburban school. It was better, but by then he decided he didn't care. He ended up working the graveyard shift in a mailroom.

But along the way, he had an epiphany: His mother told him if anything happened to her, he would be responsible for his sister.

"I thought, 'How can I provide for my little sister? I can't even provide for myself.' "

Then he heard about Gateway. Now he's doing well in his classes. In a couple of weeks, he will finish his first semester, which will put him halfway to earning his high school diploma. At the same time, he's taking his first college course. He hopes to become an English major and a writer.

"I feel like this program really helped," he said.

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