Heartland, YouthBuild partner to help at-risk students transition to college

Dave Fidlin For Chronicle Media

The Bridge program this summer, a partnership between Heartland Community College and the McLean County YouthBuild program, rolled out this summer. The program is intended to help transition teens into adulthood and give at-risk students a chance at college success. (Photo courtesy of Heartland Community College)

There are scores of success stories from YouthBuild, a 23-year-old McLean County-based charter school program that offers area at-risk students a chance to transition into adulthood with a path toward success.

But Alicia Lenard, YouthBuild’s director of organizational advancement, said she has long seen a gap within the program — particularly for students eligible to pursue post-secondary education. YouthBuild has a partnership with AmeriCorps, and students oftentimes receive scholarships.

“Our students leave YouthBuild with potentially $8,000 in school money, but because of that lack of confidence — or maybe lack of experience — surrounding post-secondary education, the money just sits when they could be bettering themselves and moving forward,” Lenard said.

The solution to the dilemma was mapped out last November through a partnership with Heartland Community College. After more than a half-year of planning out logistics, a program for YouthBuild students known as Bridge was unveiled in June.

“The pilot was amazing,” Lenard said of the launch of the accelerated program, which lasts about a month in a concentrated area of study.

Heartland staffer Scot Smigel had an integral role in developing the Bridge program with Lenard. Smigel said Bridge is constructed with a blend of flexibility and regimen so participants can learn in a tailor-made environment that suits them.

“We built the Bridge program very small so they can have success,” Smigel said. “The hope is they will go on (in furthering their college education).”

More than 30 participants took part in the inaugural rollout of Bridge this summer, and plans are in the works to continue the offering this fall.

In a sign of Heartland’s desire to offer as custom-made of an experience as possible, Smigel said YouthBuild students were polled on desired tracks in advance of the summer rollout.

The responses back resulted in six offerings: building management and maintenance, customer service for the restaurant industry, food service sanitation, information technology, pharmacy technician and welding. This fall an additional offering — entry-level office and clerical — is being added.

Some of the students have indicated they do intend to enroll in college after having a positive experience through the Bridge program.

Other participants can use the Bridge experience as a tool within their existing workplace.

“Once students earn their credentials, employers are going to see they’ve taken steps to make themselves better,” Lenard said. “Overall, it will make them more employable or increase their marketability.”

Ariel Thompson graduated from YouthBuild in 2015. She returned this summer for the Bridge program with Heartland Community College and is eyeing a career as a pharmacy technician. (Photo courtesy of Heartland Community College)

Ariel Thompson, who officially graduated from YouthBuild in 2015, returned this summer for the Bridge program. Thompson, who is considering a career as a pharmacy technician, wanted to make use of her AmeriCorps scholarship, which was unused before this summer.

“I’ve always wanted a better future for me and my son,” Thompson said in a statement provided by Heartland. “(Pharmacy technician) is attractive, in terms of salary and stability. People will always need medicine.”

While the Bridge participants are not full-fledged Heartland students, Smigel said authenticity was an important part of designing the program.

“We wanted them to enjoy the college experience as much as they could,” he said, pointing out the students were given many of the same perks and amenities traditional Heartland students receive, including a student ID, bus pass, advising services and admission into the college’s fitness and recreation center.

As a new school year gets underway, Lenard and Smigel each echoed similar sentiments — forging partnerships such as the one reached between YouthBuild and Heartland is important

“We’re not trying to compete with anybody,” Smigel said. “This is something we’re trying to do for the community.”

–Building a Bridge for at-risk students to attend college: Heartland, YouthBuild partner on new program–