Pathways Milwaukee guides students toward success in college

By BETSY THATCHER | Jan. 19, 2017

Bryan Morales had the foresight and wisdom at age 12 to grab opportunities where he could.

He says one of the best decisions he made was enrolling in Pathways Milwaukee, an enrichment program for underserved minority and first-generation college prospects.

Bryan, now 16 and a high school junior, and his parents learned about Pathways before he was a sixth-grader. He credits the program for sixth- through 12th-graders with helping him get to where he is today.

Born in Mexico, his parents immigrated to the United States when he was young. They were seeking a better life for Bryan and his younger sister. The family relocated from Arizona to Milwaukee in 2008.

“Pathways just showed me how to talk to people, give presentations, be formal, professional and adapt to the people I am talking to,” Bryan says.

Now he is taking advanced placement courses in engineering and business at Carmen Schools of Science and Technology Northwest Campus, a college prep charter school within Milwaukee Public Schools.

Bryan will be the first in his family to go to college. He is considering MIT.

Heading off problems

Many Wisconsin high school graduates arrive at college unprepared and end up in remedial math and writing classes, which makes completing a degree unlikely. Twenty percent of all incoming University of Wisconsin System students leave before the start of their second year, according to a 2016 WPRI report “Back to the Drawing Board.” At UW-Milwaukee, that figure tops 30%. Only about half of freshman who enroll full time at UWM graduate from any UW System institution within six years.

Given the high attrition and low graduation rates, remedial education is often an inefficient use of limited university and state resources, the report concludes.

Pathways works to head off those problems — and the inefficient and costly use of remedial education at Wisconsin’s universities — by ensuring that its graduates are strong in math and writing when they enter college, says Milton Cockroft, Pathways’ founder and executive director.

The program’s first three cohorts, totaling 28 students, are currently in colleges and universities around the country. Of the first two cohorts, not one student had to take remedial courses in college, Cockroft says. The statistics are not yet available on the current Pathways college freshmen.

The program’s origins

Pathways Milwaukee began in 2007 with 44 students from nine partner  public and private schools. This year, the program grew to more than 350 students from 20 partner schools.

Cockroft, a Milwaukee native with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Milwaukee School of Engineering and a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, was approached by Wisconsin Lutheran College to start a college prep program for urban youths.

“I was very active in my church, Atonement Lutheran, and I used to do a TV show,” says Cockroft, who co-hosted the “Time of Grace” ministry program.

Last year, Pathways became independent from Wisconsin Lutheran and expanded its partnership to several Milwaukee-area colleges and universities. Among them are Alverno College, Cardinal Stritch, Carroll University, Concordia University and Herzing University.

During the 2014-’15 school year, 337 students participated in Pathways. Of them, 54% were female, 58% African-American and 41% Hispanic. The students lived in 23 Milwaukee ZIP codes.

There is no cost for students to participate. The program is funded primarily by foundations. It also receives money from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Pathways’ 2016-’17 budget is about $700,000.

‘Mid-range’ students served

In the spring of students’ fifth-grade year, Pathways administrators visit the  partner schools to recruit.

“We actually give our partner schools very loose (eligibility) criteria: low income, first generation (college attendance), minimum C average and minimum behavioral issues,” Cockroft says. “That’s because we are not a school, and we don’t have those kind of resources to deal with students who are really struggling.”

Cockroft describes Pathways students as “mid-range,” neither top-performing nor struggling at home and in the classroom.

“It’s those students in the middle that are always kind of forgotten and the ones that just need that extra push and encouragement to say, ‘Yes, I can do this; I can go on to college.’ ”

In fact, 95 percent of students who stayed in Pathways to high school graduation have gone on to college, Cockroft says.

An independent evaluation of Pathways following its 2014-’15 academic year described its participants as “academically, socially, spiritually and financially prepared to reach their educational goals.”

The evaluation also found that Pathways “has had remarkable success in engaging parents and for the long term.”

The role of parents

Parents are a key component of Pathways. They must commit to at least 80% participation in workshops and meetings. They learn parenting and life skills.

“Our parent component, to me, is probably just as or even more important than what we do with our kids because parents don’t know what they don’t know,” Cockroft says. “When you’re talking low-income, first-generation, if (parents) haven’t experienced it, they don’t know how to support and encourage their kids that are moving in that direction.”

Pathways’ instructors and partners have a limited amount of each student’s attention. If the student is “going back to an environment that’s not conducive for learning and support, we can lose most of what we’ve tried to put into this,” he says.

Cockroft describes Pathways as a “holistic” program that is offered almost year-round.

Middle-schoolers are picked up after school once a week for classes and workshops at Pathways’ offices. They meet one Saturday each month for workshops and attend a summer academy focusing on science and technology, arts, public speaking and history. Leadership training is provided for seventh- and eighth-graders at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield.

 High-schoolers visit the campus of one of Pathways’ partner colleges or universities one Saturday each month. They get a small taste of campus life and attend Pathways programs on life skills, financial literacy and writing. And a summer course is offered to high-schoolers during which they live on a college campus and can earn college credits.         

Alejandra Montes de Oca’s parents are invested in Pathways. Her mother, Alejandra says, tries to attend every parent meeting and ensures that her daughter gets up for every Saturday morning event.

A senior at Carmen Schools of Science and Technology South Campus, Alejandra hopes to attend college to study creative writing. “I started Pathways because my parents aren’t from here,” she says. “I’m a first-generation (college prospect), so I really wanted an opportunity to go to college.”

College “seemed so far away” when she was a sixth-grader, Alejandra says. Now, with the help of Pathways, she is beginning the college and scholarship application process.

Cockroft says future goals include making the program available as early as kindergarten.

“I always thought that when you start working with students, particularly from an academic level, if you start in high school trying to prepare them, you’re too late,” he says.

Betsy Thatcher is a freelance writer in West Bend and a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter.