For those who have fallen behind in high school, or perhaps dropped out altogether, a relatively new program at Metropolitan Community College is making a huge impact.
It's called Gateway to College, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It targets 16 to 20-year-olds in the Omaha Public Schools district, those who are at least reading at grade level. If they pass assessments, they can qualify to finish up their high school diploma on campus, in addition to earning college credit.
For students like 20-year-old Felicia Juarez, the Gateway program has been a complete game changer. She stopped going to school at the age of 16, due to struggles at home and feeling like she didn't fit in. But that wasn't how she'd envisioned her life.
"I always wanted some sort of education to further myself and do a little bit better than I've seen some of my family do," she said.
Peg Swanson, Director of Gateway to College, said a variety of circumstances can cause teenagers to fall off track. It's not just a matter of being lazy or mixed in with the wrong crowds.
"Many of our young people today, especially in the Omaha community, if you look at how our demographics have changed, they've had these life occurrences that interrupt their traditional high school education," she said.
"Young people might have to leave school to help their family, economically, go to work. In some of the cultures in our community, if one parent becomes ill, the oldest female in the family stays home to nurture that parent."
When Juarez learned about Gateway, she immediately applied. Now, she's into her second year of intense studies. "It's amazing," she said, "because you get done with half your college, plus you get to finish up everything you didn't do in high school. And you're pretty much on the same track as everybody who did finish."
That's the idea, to have the foundation to be gainfully employed. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's most recent unemployment statistics, those without at least a high school degree are three times more likely to be jobless.
The figures show 4.4 percent of college graduates are unemployed. Nearly nine percent of those with a high school diploma are unemployed. And 13.2 percent of the jobless have not completed high school.
"It's a tough market out there," Swanson said. And the Gateway program is tough, too. Staff members devote a lot of one-on-one time with the students, to help them through individual challenges. But they have to be willing to work hard.
"Young people who truly embrace this opportunity as a fresh start, a second chance in a new environment to finish their high school are very successful."
Juarez hopes to find her success in nursing. "It helped me turn everything around," she said. "As soon as I get done with this quarter, I should get into the nursing program. So we're going through the forms and everything. It's very exciting."
For more information on the program and upcoming informational sessions, Click here.