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The Launch: A Conversation with the Accelerate Support Team

The Accelerate program offers Providence high school students an enhanced senior year experience that allows students to jump-start their postsecondary career while completing their high school requirements. Students who successfully complete the program can earn up to 24 college credits at no cost of enrollment for the student or family. The Onward We Learn Postsecondary Team sat down with the prominent staff members of the Accelerate Program in a passionate discussion about the launch of the program in fall 2020 and the impact it has made on the students, themselves and the future of the program. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity. The key support team members are: 

  • Patrice Mettauer, Director of Academic Initiatives, Rhode Island College 
  • Madeleine Burke, Interim Director of Special Projects, CCRI 
  • Jetzabel Mills, Counselor, Student Development, CCRI 
  • Heckerly Flores, Accelerate Coach, Onward We Learn 

To start off, what did you think when you first heard of the Accelerate Program when it started last summer? 

Patrice Mettauer: We were really excited … because it felt like it would be a door opening — if the program really went well and we saw success with our students, then we would be able to continue the program going forward. So, the initial reaction was: “OK, let’s figure out how to ramp this up, because this is an opportunity that probably won’t come along [again] and it would be a terrific way for us to connect with students in Providence high schools.” 

Madeleine Burke: I was really excited because it’s an opportunity to serve a demographic of student that I think we underserve in our traditional dual enrollment programs like Running Start and High School Enrichment. The opportunity to develop a program that was really robust, that was really centered on equity and giving these students in the Providence district the opportunity to accelerate their college experience was really exciting. 

Jetzabel Mills: I was really excited about the opportunity to work with high school students. I come from a background where I work with people from a lot of different populations, and coming to CCRI, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. So when I had the opportunity to work with these students, I was like: Wow, this is awesome, these kids are getting a step up.  

The Accelerate Program started (and finished) its first year. Can you talk about how it was for you going through the Accelerate process, from beginning, middle, and end? 

MB: The beginning was a lot of hard work on the part of all the different parties involved: the [Providence School] District, RIC, CCRI, RIDE — just coming together and putting all our muscle behind getting something like this running in such a short time. And then once we settled into the semester, for me, that middle part was the most rewarding: getting to know the students, getting to hear their stories. It was a challenging year for all of us, living through a pandemic, so to hear from the students about the different hardships they were facing and the different exciting things that were happening for them — applying to college, getting accepted to college, taking their SATs. Going through that journey with them was so exciting. It made me more invested in why we need to be doing this work and why we need to be partnering more closely with the Providence district. 

PM: It was a whirlwind, with lots of working 12-hour days, seven days a week, right in the beginning. But it was so gratifying to see it all come together. I think that in the back of our minds, the thinking always was: How do we best serve students in this really bizarre environment right now? I loved getting to know the students and learning about their concerns and their world, seeing their development from the beginning of the year to the end of the year; they’re delightful students! I just loved getting to know them. At the end I was celebrating how many of them were incredibly successful!  

JM: Definitely whirlwind, definitely challenging, but 100 percent rewarding. I think maybe as an advisor, I had a little more of the benefit and the privilege of creating those relationships and meeting with the students. When I think about this year, there was a lot of growth and development, for the college, for the program, for myself, for the students. Figuring out all those little nooks and crannies that definitely challenged us but being able to overcome them — growth and development though what was already set up to be a very difficult year was very successful. 

Can you describe a positive experience you’ve had working with your students or a group of students in the program? And how do you see your role contributing to that experience? 

JM: I think the best thing was that we started to create nicknames for each other. My name’s not very easy but [the students] got to the point where they were like: “Ms. M!” I have a student that calls me “Mills.” I got into the habit of calling them “friends,” so: “Hey friend, what’s going on? How’s it going? Do you need this? Do you need that?” One time I didn’t call a student a friend, and they were like: “Wait, are you OK? What’s wrong?” Being able to create those positive relationships was really exciting for me. 

MB: I really enjoyed helping them problem-solve. We had a couple of students throughout the year who had some really tough situations and so being able to pick up the phone and call them and walk them through where they are, what they need, what resources we can provide, and ways they can take back control of their situation. Seeing the growth and maturity in them, in the way they were managing those financial and academic challenges, was really great.  

PM: One of the goals I had made for myself and for the program was that we would give students the opportunity to explore a course that would head them in the direction they thought they would want to major in college. It was really wonderful hearing their stories and then connecting them into a class or two that would really move them in the direction they wanted to go so they could see whether it was a good fit.  

JM: It was also really satisfying to see them get so close to their goals and their dreams. We have a few students who are graduating in December with their associate degrees. We have a student who is applying to the nursing program in August because she’s met the requirements. To see those success stories and to be a part of that is really rewarding. 

How was the experience working with us, the Onward We Learn, as an organization, and how has it been working with Heckerly? 

JM: I call us the dream team. We work so well together. I honestly would not have been able to do half of anything — being able to bounce off of somebody, being able to have that additional support, being able to have that contact person, being able to have somebody who understands what I’m going through. Honestly, if it wasn’t for us working together and having that great partnership, I don’t think these students would have been able to succeed, and I don’t think that this program would have succeeded. Without this dream team, it wouldn’t have happened. 

MB: I agree. Having the Onward We Learn and the connection to the district and the way that Heckerly was able to develop relationships with the counselors in the school and get information flowing back and forth on a consistent basis — it really was a game-changer, because it gave the students full wrap-around support and the fact that we were able to get all of the students who completed the program through to 100 percent graduation is a pretty big deal. I think it’s a credit to the deep connections the Onward We Learn has in the district and the great work that Hecklerly was doing. 

PM: I suppose in some ways, as Jetzabel and Maddie said, it was the teamwork, really, that pushed us to success with all of the students. Having worked with Heckerly at RIC prior to being part of the Crusade, I knew how much I could count on her to do good work with students. That dedication and support is invaluable to the students more than anything, and hopefully they recognize how much she was part of their success at the institutions. 

Heckerly Maria-Flores: Thank you all for the kind words! I’d say it would go both ways. I appreciated the determination we all had to push these students forward, because we all know it was a tough year. Sometimes I think back and wonder: What would we have done if this wasn’t virtual? If it was in person, it would have been even better. The fact that we were able to work so well virtually is incredible. 

Naglaa Gafaar:. One thing that made this partnership work so well is that we’re aligned at heart with the student at the center. So every single person on the team had every single student as the most important person in the room every single time. For that, a very, very big thanks. 

Thinking of year two, and reflecting on finishing the first year of the Accelerate Program, how do you feel about the overall outcome of the program? 

MB: I feel really good about it! When you look at the success rate of the [Accelerate] students, the average credits they earned in comparison to the rest of the students at our college, and even their peers, that this was a virtual program, that we lifted in four weeks during a pandemic, it’s actually extraordinary. The more important part [is] that students are going on the do what they really want to do, whether it’s continuing at CCRI, RIC or URI, there are so many success stories of students who were able to use this program as a stepping stone to that next step. So I think Accelerate was a huge success. 

PM: I have competing thoughts here: being excited about the success of the students and a little sad about the students who really struggled right at the end. The ones I’ve just registered for classes for the fall at RIC — just hearing about their experience and how excited they are about actually being in person and having a real college experience and knowing that we were able to get them this far along the road is great.  

JM: I am really excited about year two. We’ve learned a lot, and I am excited to implement what we’ve learned, to get even more success. I’m excited to see what’s coming! 

MB: [The students] are going to be on campus, so I’m so excited to be actually able to see them and meet with them and see them interacting with other college students and taking advantage of our resources on campus. I think it will be a real game-changer. 

NG: I think you all got really up close and personal to every single one of them, in a way that I haven’t really seen on a college campus or even with our day-to-day work with students at the Crusade. It was really, really close and I think it will give a lot of deep insight into making the program a lot stronger. 

JM: And I think strengthening that relationship that we had with PPSD through Heckerly is another reason why she’s an important asset of this team. Having those weekly check-ins, reach-outs, and direct communication with each of the public schools. It’s nice to know that’s going to continue. 

Heckerly, I want to hear from you, too! How do you feel about the outcome of the program after year one? 

HM: It was a whirlwind, so everyone was always on their toes. We were fighting for these students and making sure we got them the proper accommodations. It’s really bittersweet to have it all come to an end, but I’m really excited. It’s all learning lessons. It’s always going to be difficult, especially when you’re working with two different kinds of entities — higher ed and public high schools. That on top of the fact that we’re virtual and the fact that all of us were able to form connections on Zoom and not being able to see our students — it’s almost unbelievable! It’s all really bittersweet but I’m also excited to take everything we learned and try to do better. 

The program is going into its second year, and you’ve seen the students go through a lot of different things — different obstacles, different things you can expect on their journey in the program. Speaking to the new cohort of Accelerate students: what is some advice you’d give? 

JM: I would say stick to a schedule, stick to a plan, and schedule out your courses and make sure that you keep that mentality that you’re still in school. Even though it is college, and your schedule is going to be a little more flexible, that does not mean it does not involve more work. I would definitely encourage them not to be overwhelmed, in the sense that if you need help, reach out. It’s better to ask for help before you start to drown.  

NG: Know the difference between being a high school student and a college student and the different expectations and the different schedule and what that would mean for your success. Be very clear on your goal, why you’re in the program. Keep your eye on the target and reach out. You have to prioritize, and sometimes we have to look at the long-term effects rather than the short-term gains and plan accordingly. Also, take advantage of all the resources that would allow you to broaden your horizon, because that’s a big aspect of the program that is different from dual enrollment. You have access to so many people that are invested in showing you what lies beyond high school.  

PM: People’s circumstances changed a lot over the course of the year, and sometimes they didn’t reach out to let us know that they needed something else to be successful. When we can, we will move obstacles and work the system to help them be successful. 

HM: If you’re having a hard time and you know that you’re not going to be turning in your best work, or that you’re not going to make it to a class, send an email! Go to an office hour! Virtual office hours are a thing. They’re there and they’re not lying. Sometimes they sit in their office hours by themselves, and no one comes! I tell my students sometimes: You just need to reach out. Ask for help, because most of the time, you will get the help that you need. 

Does anybody have anything they’d like to add you want to highlight about Accelerate? 

NG: I want to really celebrate the two people who were on the ground this past year, Jetzabel and Heckerly. The number of hours, energy, and screen time that you had with the students, the amount of heart that went out to these students, the concern, the quick reaction and response to every single issue that they had — I just can’t say thank you enough. And Patrice, being the one-woman-show at Rhode Island College to troubleshoot everything, has been amazing. I don’t want anybody to ever underestimate the amount of energy and time and work that made this year work. Even though the number of students was not so large, the amount of energy that went into serving the students was pretty much equal to serving a thousand students at a time — with just a few people on the team. I really want to celebrate that. 

PM: Well, we couldn’t have done it without you! There’s no way I would have been successful if it wasn’t for Heckerly and Naglaa, I’ll tell you that much! It was a team effort, and thank you, Naglaa, it’s true that the work Heckerly did was really amazing, and I’m very grateful. 

JM: Thank you, Naglaa, for those kind words. I want to say that this program has been successful because we all have put a lot of heart, body, and soul into it. Working together has been great. Just as much as we have provided support to these students, we have been able to provide support for each other. Because of that, I feel like we were able to be even better for our students. Through all the work, through all the frustrations, through all the challenges, through all the ups and downs, and all the joys, we’ve been able to do it together, and I think that’s what’s really made it successful, has really made it worthwhile, and I’m just really excited to see what happens next. Forty students this year — let’s double it, triple it, quadruple it, let’s see what we can do.