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Extra year of high school effort takes root

A door to science, engineering will open at Wentworth for some Boston students

“Universities are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” said Wentworth’s president, Mark Thompson. “And I think we have a responsibility to use that capability.”
“Universities are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” said Wentworth’s president, Mark Thompson. “And I think we have a responsibility to use that capability.”Wentworth Institute of Technology

As uncertainty looms over the reopening of universities, a new program is offering Boston’s graduating seniors a critical extra year of preparation before they dive in fully to college.

The program — a partnership between an organization called Digital Ready, which connects low-income youth to high-tech opportunities, and the Wentworth Institute of Technology — will provide between 25 and 40 recent Boston public high school graduates a year of intensive training, including exposure to different careers, at no charge.

The initiative is being funded by the Boston-based Barr Foundation (which also supports the Globe’s Great Divide education coverage).

An extra year of high school has gotten traction in recent years in places like Louisiana and West Virginia, as a solution for students, particularly first-generation college aspirants, who are at high risk of struggling at universities due in part to insufficient preparation and confidence.

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Through the new program, students will take college courses and learn skills including computer-aided design, engineering, digital fabrication, and robotics — all of which can lead to well-paid jobs in growing fields, organizers said.

Wentworth will house the initiative, which has no official name yet; backers refer to it as “Year 13.” Participants will earn 18 academic credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

While any student can apply to the program, priority will be given to Black and Latino students who attend low-performing schools that lack access to “high quality learning and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] opportunities,” said Sarah Cherry Rice, founder of Digital Ready.

“This is a head start to college,” she said, adding that students will also learn about what different fields and careers actually involve on a day-to-day basis. “Students will tell you [they are] very interested in the intersection of design and technology, but they have not had enough opportunities” to learn what that means.

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The initiative is all the more urgent now amid massive disruptions caused by the coronavirus, which have disproportionately affected Black, Latino, and low-income students, leaving educational gaps and new uncertainties about paying for college.

An extra year of intensive academic exploration is critical for those students, including those struggling academically, said City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who has been pressing the Year 13 idea for several years.

Flaherty said students graduate from many Boston high schools with high hopes for college, only to falter and drop out later. Slightly more than half of Boston public school graduates who attend higher education programs complete degrees within six years, according to a 2018 report.

The Year 13 initiative will also address gaps in Boston students’ science and technology preparation, Flaherty said. A recent Globe analysis, for instance, found that in 2018-19, only one Boston public high school offered both Advanced Placement computer science courses, Computer Science A and Principles.

“We have this whole emerging economy happening, particularly in the South Boston Waterfront and in other parts of our city,” Flaherty said.

But jobs in high-paying industries are often out of reach for local students, he added.

Flaherty first publicly pushed the Year 13 idea when he was running for mayor in 2009. He revived it in 2013 on the council and again last year after the Globe published the Valedictorians Project, which revealed that a quarter of Boston’s top students from 2005 to 2007 failed to get a bachelor’s degree within six years. None earned a medical degree, and about 40 percent earn less than $50,000 per year.

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The project, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting, gave new life to the Year 13 concept. Flaherty contends that just like wealthier students who take a year after high school to shore up their academic or other skills, Boston students could also benefit from the extra time.

But the idea was met with mixed reviews, hailed in some corners and panned in others as unattainable. It got little traction from Boston school officials, said Flaherty, who made the rounds on various news programs pushing the idea.

He caught the attention of Rice, a former Philadelphia middle school teacher who had been contemplating redesigning high schools to increase college access for students while she was working on her doctorate in education leadership at Harvard University. She said she was pleased to hear Flaherty pushing the idea.

“I didn’t know someone else was thinking about [a Year 13],‘' she recalled.

At Digital Ready, Rice said students have reported that their high schools were not preparing them for their desired jobs in fields like computer science, robotics, and engineering.

Flaherty and Rice eventually connected last year and spent several months talking to industry and high school representatives. Rice said she first approached Wentworth about the idea in December which gave the official go ahead earlier this month.

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“Universities are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” said Wentworth’s president, Mark Thompson. “And I think we have a responsibility to use that capability.”

Admissions will be on a rolling basis. Students can apply beginning Monday.

Sharif Abdullahi, a 2020 graduate of Excel High School in South Boston, said he would like to go to college in the fall but is considering applying for the Year 13 program at Wentworth. He wants to be a software developer and participated in a trial of the program in the spring, which he said will offer him a critical foundation.

“We don’t ever really get told [that] we could affect the future with ... technology,‘' said Abdullahi, 18, shortly before going to his high school to pick up his diploma. ‘‘This program expands our horizons to the STEM field.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.