Helping city kids to make it to college

Kelsey Kaiser, left, of New London discusses future colleges with Chris Soto, founder and director of the College Access Program (CAP) at the First Hispanic Baptist Church in New London 21.
Kelsey Kaiser, left, of New London discusses future colleges with Chris Soto, founder and director of the College Access Program (CAP) at the First Hispanic Baptist Church in New London 21.

Chris Soto graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 2003, served five years as a law enforcement specialist, worked in the diversity office at the academy, and went back to school to get a master's degree in public administration from Brown University.

Now he's founder and director of the new College Access Program, which helps New London teens from low-income families, or those who will be the first generation to attend college, further their educations.

"The fastest way to lift a family out of poverty is a college education,'' said Soto. "That is the bottom line."

CAP, as the program is known, offers coaching and support to students in choosing a college, applying for admission and obtaining financial aid. It also will track students during their college years and continue to help them navigate college - from academics to social life. The program was officially launched March 16 at Encuentros de Esperanza, which means Encounters of Hope, at 35 Redden Ave.

The 3,000 square-foot space has a two-unit computer cluster and classroom space for student and family workshops.

The objective is to see kids succeed and graduate, Soto said.

"The biggest obstacle for these kids is resources,'' said Soto. "What we're doing is leveling the playing field."

Soto said while working at the academy, he noticed that some students needed more help transitioning to college life. He also would overhear some on campus imply that those with less than 1200 on their SATs would not be successful.

"That struck a chord,'' he said. "I didn't score 1000 and I'm successful."

After interning at the nonprofit College Visions in Providence, Soto told the directors there that he wanted to replicate the program in New London.

"They've been very, very helpful advisors,'' he said.

With grants from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and the Frank Loomis Palmer Fund, and private and corporate donations, Soto has created a program that will eventually serve 25 people from New London. Students are helped in filling out applications, all must apply for at least five scholarships, and parents are brought in for financial aid workshops, in English and Spanish.

For someone who has never filled out a college financial aid form, it can be daunting, Soto.

"He is really meeting a need,'' said Jennifer O'Brien, program director at the Community Foundation, which awarded Soto a $7,000 grant.

She said the foundation has about a dozen scholarships available to New London residents. While many of the applicants have high grades and SAT scores, their applications are unsophisticated and are filled with spelling errors when compared to their suburban counterparts.

What Soto is teaching the students, she said, is as simple as proof-reading an essay.

In New London, according to Soto, out of 162 seniors who graduated last year from the high school, 113 said they wanted to go to college. Ninety-four of them took the SATs and 70 enrolled in their first year of college. Anecdotally and based on national statistics, he said only 10 kids from urban schools similar to New London will end up graduating in four to six years.

That, he said, is unacceptable. In suburban schools, between 50 and 60 percent of high school seniors end up graduating from college.

"It's a process,'' he said. "We are helping them get through every step so they will be successful."

K.EDGECOMB@THEDAY.COM

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