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New GED program opens at Central Branch YMCA

New GED program opens at Central Branch YMCA
Xavier Rhinehart, associate executive director of the Central Branch YMCA, conducts a tour of the new facility. (Photo: Jeremy C. Fox)

After four years of successful programming in the South End, the Pathway Technology Campus (PTC) inaugurated its new GED Readiness Program last week at the Central Branch YMCA with an open house.  

The plan to expand to the YMCA came out of a series of meetings of the South End/Lower Roxbury cluster of StreetSafe Boston, a youth development and safety initiative designed to reduce youth violence in Boston neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime.

Stakeholders from the area — including police, youth workers, representatives from different youth programs and youth themselves — developed a holistic plan for education and services to help support high-risk youth.

Classes were planned to begin on Wednesday, Feb. 3, and will meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to academic subjects, while on Wednesdays, guest speakers will talk about issues facing young people, including conflict resolution, diversity, trust and respect.

While the original Villa Victoria, location is open to students 16 and up, the new program is limited to those ages 16 – 24. Students may enroll in the program at any Tuesday night session and can stay as long as they need to prepare for the exam, depending on their educational background. The program and the GED exam are free, as are the first two college courses and the related textbooks.

PTC will also help students apply for financial aid. “One hundred percent of our students that apply for financial aid get financial aid grants,” PTC Project Manager Elizabeth Pabon-Szebeda said. “Not even loans. They get grants.”

“And they even get money back,” she added. “We have a student that just got back $2,000 this semester, after books and after their classes are paid for.”

Xavier Rhinehart, associate executive director of the Central Branch YMCA, was involved in the original StreetSafe discussions, and he’s glad to be able to offer space for the GED Readiness Program.

“We definitely have space that we don’t utilize to its fullest potential,” he said, “and we want to add as many resources as we possibly can … because we are a safe haven for a lot of young people that choose to come here to either use health and wellness facilities or use some of the other resources that we have here.”

The YMCA was selected in part because it is in neutral territory. Pabon-Szebeda explained, “Let’s say we have a Lower Roxbury student who doesn’t feel comfortable going to the South End site; now they have a place that they can go to. Here at the YMCA, it’s very turf-neutral.”

The open house featured a tour of the facility led by Rhinehart and speeches by BHCC President Mary L. Fifield, IBA Chief Executive Officer Vanessa Calderon-Rosado and Dr. Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University.

Levin delivered a colorful keynote address, complete with magic tricks, on the benefits of being a late bloomer.

Explaining that he himself had been an unremarkable student in his youth, Levin said, “For the late bloomer, success is especially sweet … when it finally happens. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, ‘Better late than never.’ Well, have you ever considered the possibility, ‘Better late than early’?”

PTC is an educational partnership between Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) and Inquilinos Boriquas en Acción (IBA), a community-based organization that works to empower people through “education, economic development, technology and arts programming.”

PTC began in 2003, when IBA approached BHCC with a plan to bring higher education resources to the community at Villa Victoria. Initial funding came from a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to serve residents in the Villa Victoria, Tent City, Castle Square and Cathedral affordable housing communities of the South End.

After the grant period ended, BHCC and IBA committed to continuing the program, sharing the expenses equally. Funding for the PTC also comes from the Hyams Foundation, the Clowes Fund, Liberty Mutual and the John W. Alden Trust.

Initially, the program was only geared toward preparing and enrolling students for college, but the staff realized that they needed to support the many young people who were unable to go to college because they didn’t yet have high school diplomas.

In 2004 they added the GED Readiness Program, which has so far graduated about 45 students.

Pabon-Szebeda says that about 10 students from PTC have earned their associate’s degrees at BHCC and around 20 have gone on to other colleges and completed either their associate’s or bachelor’s degree. About 100 students from PTC are now enrolled at BHCC, while another 30 are enrolled at other colleges.

Around 70 percent of the students enrolled are women, and close to 95 percent  are people of color, Pabon-Szebeda said.

Pabon-Szebeda credits the program’s success to the one-on-one work that case managers do with students. “The cornerstone of the program,” she said, “is the case management piece.

“The case managers build [relationships] with the students in a way that the student feels comfortable saying, ‘I need housing,’ or, ‘This is going on at home; what can I do?’ Really reaching out to them so that they know they have someone they can talk to, and then the case managers find the resources that the student needs, whether it’s in-house at IBA or at Bunker Hill, or outside.”

Antonio Arrendel, the case manager who will oversee the new PTC location, said it was meaningful for him to be part of the program because he grew up in Dorchester and was exposed to the same environment as the students he works with.

 He earned his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University, right next to the YMCA. “The irony of them being here and going through the same stuff is great,” he said, “and they’re all going to make it.”

Arrendel believes the most important thing is showing the young people that someone truly cares about them. “I have a saying,” he said, “‘Show me an adult who cares and I’ll show you a kid who cares.’ So that’s our approach to the whole thing.”

For more information, contact Elizabeth Pabon-Szebeda at 617-927-1724 or