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For some, stimulus aid begins in the classroom

Federal funds expand options for area colleges

By Karen Sackowitz
Globe Correspondent / April 11, 2010

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Haverhill High School senior Gladys Payano is like a lot of ambitious kids her age. She studies hard, holds down a part-time job, volunteers in her community, and is looking forward to graduation in the spring. But despite being a member of the HHS class of 2010, Gladys doesn’t attend class there — she earns her credits across town at Northern Essex Community College.

Ryan Fitz-Gerald of Lynn was unemployed after more than 15 years’ experience in the construction business and was unsure how to make a career change. Now, after completing the new Building Analyst program offered through North Shore Community College’s Corporate and Community Education workforce training division, he has earned his certification and is interviewing with several potential employers.

Both Payano and Fitz-Gerald have benefited from federal stimulus funds distributed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and targeted specifically for community colleges. The ARRA was implemented in February 2009, and $12 billion was later pledged for two-year institutions.

At NECC, some of the funding was channeled into this year’s dual enrollment program, which enables qualifying high school students to take college-level courses, earning class credits that will transfer to any college or university. While Governor Patrick has pushed funding for dual enrollment programs such as the one at NECC, college officials say state support has been inconsistent.

“Without additional funding, the dual-enrollment option exists, but students must pay out of pocket,’’ says NECC director of enrollment services Charles Diggs. “That can eliminate some of our target participants, including lower-income, first-generation college attendees.’’

Payano first heard about the NECC dual enrollment program from her mother, a career counselor at Valley Works in Lawrence. Her teachers at Haverhill High then supported her as a strong candidate; she took an aptitude test in September and was accepted that day.

“I already had enough credits to graduate from high school,’’ she says. “If I wasn’t doing this, I would just be filling my days with electives until June.’’

Instead, Payano is working harder than ever, taking an English Composition II class at NECC three days a week. She completed an English Composition I class in the fall, receiving an A as her final grade.

“I was already planning to attend [State University of New York] Albany in the fall, but this experience has made me want to go there even more,’’ she says. “I feel confident knowing already that I can keep up with college-level courses.’’

Diggs teases Payano about her plans to attend a college other than NECC, but says supporting students like her speaks to the school’s broader college-readiness goal.

“As a community college, we need to consider factors beyond our campus. How can we contribute to our community and its members?’’ he says. “It’s great if our dual-enrollment students choose to come here after graduation. But if they don’t, they are still members of the community who are pursuing higher education. The community as a whole benefits.’’

This past fall, 63 students participated in dual enrollment at NECC; 119 are enrolled for spring. Diggs says he doesn’t know what kind of state funding will be available for the dual-enrollment program next year, if any, but for now the federal stimulus funds are making the difference for students like Payano.

At North Shore Community College in Danvers, Fitz-Gerald had taken an aptitude test as he explored opportunities in the medical field. But when an astute career counselor saw his extensive construction background, he changed direction.

“I was looking to make a switch,’’ he says. “But the counselor pointed out that there were ways I could incorporate my background into a new career without having to start out at an entry level.’’

Fitz-Gerald was introduced to the college’s newly created Building Analyst program. Funded by ARRA grants distributed through the North Shore Workforce Investment Board, the program provides education in specific “green’’ jobs. In his case, Fitz-Gerald has learned how to use specialized testing equipment for residential energy audits. Based on audit results, homeowners can take steps to improve their home’s efficiency and reduce their overall environmental impact.

Fitz-Gerald says there are plenty of established companies and start-ups focusing on this growing field, given the incentives put forth by the Obama administration.

“Federal energy rebates and tax credits started in 2008, but in 2010 the scale was adjusted,’’ he says.

“In Massachusetts, homeowners can receive up to thousands of dollars in credits toward these types of renovations.’’

Fitz-Gerald is already seeing the demand for his new skill set.

“In the last nine months, I haven’t been able to land one interview in the construction business,’’ he says. “Since starting this course in January, I have interviewed with five companies.’’

A huge turnaround, given that the course was just four weeks long. After an online final exam and successful completion of a field test, he had his certification in hand.

Fitz-Gerald says that while ARRA funding enabled the creation of the Building Analyst program, the fact that it also covered his tuition made all the difference.

“I’ve been on unemployment,’’ says the divorced father of two. “I never would have been able to afford it.’’

In a speech last summer, President Obama justified his commitment to community colleges by saying that at a time of state and local budgetary difficulties, two-year institutions needed more resources to fulfill their role in helping displaced workers build new careers. Fitz-Gerald says he is evidence that the plan is working.

“Through this course I received a new education, found new career possibilities, and have secured several job interviews,’’ he says. “You hear a lot of news reports about mismanagement of the stimulus money, but from where I sit, the objective was met.’’

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