AN INNOVATIVE PROGRAM GUIDES FORMER GANG MEMBERS FROM PRISON TO PROMISE 

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Giovanni Morris speaking at the 2016 College Bound Matriculation Celebration – Courtesy of Romana Vysatova Photography

By Katherine Mangan OCTOBER 11, 2016

BOSTON

Each time another jail-cell door slammed shut on Giovanne Morris, his reputation on the street rose a notch. But his self-esteem slumped.

Looking back, the 24-year-old is troubled by how young men looked up to him for the destruction he caused growing up in a neighborhood teeming with guns, drugs, and violence. He’s ready, he says, to become a different kind of role model.

A nonprofit called College Bound Dorchester hopes to help him achieve that goal. The program, which is based in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Boston, seeks out 17- to 27-year-olds with a track record of leading their peers into crime. The idea is that a college education will help “core influencers” like Mr. Morris use the charisma and leadership that got them into trouble to become positive influences in their communities.

The program relies mostly on private donations to provide potential college students with personal advisers, free college-prep courses, childcare, bus passes, and other support. It’s expensive, but less so, its leaders say, than the amount spent incarcerating and rehabilitating young people.

“I see other kids helping each other out with studying and it didn’t feel like my crowd. I felt like I was more accepted in the streets.”

College Bound is one of dozens of programs nationwide that are trying to break the cycle of poverty in their communities by aggressively recruiting disadvantaged students to college. Leaders of those programs are finding that getting students there is only part of the challenge; to succeed, they often need an extensive array of services like the ones that helped Mr. Morris complete his first semester at Bunker Hill Community College last spring and start his second semester this fall. He’s majoring in human services and hopes to become a counselor for a middle school or nonprofit organization.

The road from Dorchester to Bunker Hill is still rough for Mr. Morris. His ankle monitor and a scar on his wrist — a knife wound that came from a fight that broke out after a party — are constant reminders of where he’s been. While other commuters lose themselves in their music or books, he’s tense, alert to the possibility that a boarding passenger might be a rival gang member who harbors a grudge.

As he makes his way to his psychology class through a racially diverse sea of students, he says he is still surprised that his classmates accept him. “I thought they’d look at my skin color, hard face, and my braided hair and say, Stay clear of him, but they all interact with me,” he says. “None of them judge me.”

Whenever he does have doubts, he calls Luis (Lu) Rodrigues, one of 14 “college readiness advisers” at College Bound. These mentors help students fill out financial-aid paperwork and secure bus passes, and they offer tips to avoid sliding back into bad patterns.

Mr. Rodrigues, a 36-year-old former drug dealer who spent 11 years in prison, understands where Mr. Morris is coming from. “Lu’s been through worse than what I’ve been through,” says Mr. Morris, a soft-spoken young man with a trim beard and a world-weary expression who is naturally suspicious of people trying to help him. “We connect. He feeds me positive stuff all the time and keeps it real.”

For most of Mr. Morris’s childhood, his father was in prison. When Mr. Morris was 11, his mother was jailed, and he was sent to foster care.

“Some of these guys have never had someone tell them they could be someone,” says Mr. Rodrigues, who wears large black-rimmed glasses and has a long bushy beard that draws compliments from passers-by. “All they’ve heard, even from their families, is they’re a loser.” When he finds Mr. Morris hanging out on the street corners with guys he committed crimes with, he picks him up and takes him out to eat.

Mr. Rodrigues knows what it’s like to be treated as a hero for all the wrong reasons. “If you’re doing something negative,” he says, “you’re the most popular guy in the hood.”

Services for Overwhelmed Students

Over the last three years, College Bound Dorchester has enrolled about 130 students, funneling them into Bunker Hill and two other Boston colleges — Roxbury Community College and the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

Many, but not all, of those students have committed crimes. Some are homeless; some are victims of domestic violence. Since 2012, about 30 students have earned associate or bachelor’s degrees through College Bound. About 60 percent of the students who start in the program are still enrolled a year later.

That’s a strong retention rate given the students’ challenges, administrators say. The program attracts students whose reading and math skills usually hover around 7th- or 8th-grade levels.

But the students’ obstacles go beyond simple skills. “Holistic services are crucial for all students, but particularly those who haven’t had success in school and feel deep down like they don’t belong in college,” says Melinda Mechur Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

College Bound grew out of a 50-year-old nonprofit, Federated Dorchester, which provided social services to children and families. Initially, the focus was on helping students get their high-school-equivalency credentials. After that, “We’d send them off to college, and two weeks later, they had all dropped out,” says the program’s founder and chief executive officer, Mark Culliton. “We learned a ton.”

Students, the group discovered, were overwhelmed by personal issues, stuck in sequences of remedial courses, and quitting. Although the community colleges they enrolled in offered counseling and tutoring, “students like ours wouldn’t access them,” says Mr. Culliton. “They needed a navigator.”

Program leaders decided to do remediation in-house so students could adjust to the idea of college, both socially and emotionally, while they were brushing up on academic skills.

In group and individual coaching sessions, staff members push students to set goals — and stick to them.

In addition, the program tutors students and helps them prepare for the College Board’s Accuplacer exam, which determines whether they end up in remedial or college-level classes.

Many students sign up for free remedial math and English classes taught by Bunker Hill faculty members at the College Bound site.

The goal is to limit each student to one semester of remediation and to arrange their schedules in blocks when possible.

When students struggle in their college classes, program staff members intervene, explaining to professors where the students are coming from and what challenges they might face. A College Bound counselor spends at least one day a week at each participating college. When a student tries to sneak out the door of the classroom building, a counselor will encourage him to stick around.

‘I’m Such a Loner’

Mr. Culliton understands what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by school. His undiagnosed dyslexia contributed to his own problems. “I was angry and thought I was a bad student,” he says.

By middle school he was using drugs; by high school he was breaking into houses and selling drugs. But unlike the students he now works with, he had a mother who could easily get him off the hook. “In 10th grade, I was caught stealing red-handed, but my mother showed up — a white, upper-middle-class, college-educated woman — and she convinced the cop that I could never do that.” The cop apologized to him and let him go. Not everyone, Mr. Culliton says, “has the privilege of making mistakes.”

He redirected his anger into social-justice causes, spending time in the Peace Corps, earning an MBA from the Yale School of Management, and managing education nonprofits.

With College Bound Dorchester, he’s working with young men and women who have been deemed by others as the ones least likely to succeed, he says.

Mr. Morris tried college once before. After a series of stints in and out of juvenile detention and jail, he graduated from an alternative high school, where a guidance counselor urged him to apply to a community college.

Not wanting to disappoint the counselor, he enrolled at Roxbury Community College. He lasted a day.

“I’m such a loner,” he says. “I was sitting in the cafeteria by myself. I see other kids helping each other out with studying and it didn’t feel like my crowd. I felt like I was more accepted in the streets.”

Pulled back into his old gang, he ended up in the South Bay House of Correction, where a math teacher from College Bound persuaded him to try college again when he got out. Last January, he enrolled at Bunker Hill, this time with extensive support.

“I had my doubts in the beginning,” he told his classmates in a speech he was asked to give at an August ceremony honoring the students who were enrolling in college classes. “I’m so used to disappointing people, that’s what’s in my mind — that I’m going to mess something up.”

While his mother and some of his friends were impressed with his decision to go to college, “more than a few people said it’s all BS,” he says. Mr. Rodrigues interjects: “Those are the people he needs to stay clear of.”

Working as a college adviser with the nonprofit has its ups and downs, Mr. Rodrigues says. A few weeks ago, he attended the funeral of a student who was supposed to start college in January. During the service he received a call from another College Bound student who had been stabbed the day before.

But there are good days too. During lunch with Mr. Morris, he receives a call from a student who had just completed a nine-month program in air-conditioning repair. The student is pretty sure that he’s landed a job. “I’m proud of you, bro!” Mr. Rodrigues exclaims.

While Mr. Rodrigues is pumping up his advisee, Mr. Morris scrolls through his cellphone and holds up a photo of his 3-year-old daughter, who was born while he was in prison. A son is due at the end of this month.

“It’s like God blessed me with a daughter and a son,” he says quietly. “It’s a sign that I needed to stop doing what I’m doing and be a father they can look up to.”

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan,or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.