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January 20, 2016

College Bound is a program that targets the toughest youth in the neighborhood, including former gang members, helping them get through college (Elizabeth Ross/WGBH)

Up on the second floor of the Log School on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester, a teacher is leading a class on English Language Arts. It is not long before student Alex Diaz is called on. Diaz has tattoos running up and down both of his arms, and he is sitting right at the very back of the classroom.

School has never come easy for 29-year-old Diaz or any of the students here. The Log School is run by a nonprofit called College Bound Dorchester, a voluntary program that targets the toughest youth in the neighborhood, including former gang members. The last time Diaz attempted to take his high school equivalency test, he says he was in prison serving eight years for armed robbery.

“I basically ended up getting into a fight on the day of my test and that pushed me back and I just never got to do it again after that,” he explains.

College Bound Dorchester’s CEO, Mark Culliton, says his organization runs a program that helps students like Diaz to pass the high school equivalency test and then enroll into local community colleges. Culliton admits it can be a hard sell getting colleges to admit convicted felons.

“I think they, like everybody who first meets our students has that bias and that fear,” he says, “But our students come with our supports, and our students therefore are much more successful than the general population.”

Listen: WGBH's Morning Edition host Bob Seay interviews Dr. Pam Eddinger, President of Bunker Hill Community College. Bunker Hill, along with Roxbury Community College and Benjamin Franklin Institute, have established formal partnerships with College Bound Dorchester.

The program’s College Connections initiative has been running for over three years, and Culliton says his students have lower drop out rates than other students, because they are supported at every step of the way through college.

But Culliton says here is the real game changer when it comes to his students:

“These guys are so disruptive in neighborhoods that if you can change their trajectories that will uncork the potential of the whole neighborhood,” he explains.

Luis Rodrigues is a staff advisor at College Bound Dorchester. He loves to mentor the students with messages about why he thinks it is so important to go to college, but he says it is a message that young people in his community really never hear.

“You know, there’s nobody really drumming it in every day saying you’re going to go to college,” Rodrigues says. “You can’t go to college unless you have a jump shot, or you’re on some sort of sports scholarship,” he explains.

Rodrigues was not always so positive. He used to be a local gang member and a drug dealer, until one day when he recalls, “I was shot ten times at point-blank range, and I had an ileostomy bag. I had multiple operations [and] I lost vision in my right eye.”

As painful as that day was, incredibly Rodrigues says, “They shot somebody out of me, and I’m real thankful to the people who shot me.”

Rodrigues says after that day, everything changed. “I sat in a hospital bed and I figured out God’s not going to let me die, that’s going to be too easy,” he says. “He wants me to reflect on all the bad I’ve done, [and] all the families that I’ve had go through this situation.”

Earlier: A Swing And A Miss: What Does The Rising Cost Of Extracurricular Activities Mean For Poor Kids?

Rodrigues served a total of 11 years behind bars, including time at the same prison with College Bound Dorchester student, Alex Diaz. Rodrigues says, now that he and Diaz are both on the outside, he is thrilled to be helping him.

“We were just so proud of each other,” he says. “He was in prison for robbery. I was in jail for drug dealing, and you know our thought process and everything was different.”

With Rodrigues’ support, Diaz says he’s determined to get to college. He wants to study business management, and he dreams of starting his own music company.

Luis Rodrigues, Alex Diaz and Mark Culliton, College Bound Dorchester (Elizabeth Ross/WGBH)

“Once in a while everybody gotta fall down and you know get back up, and once you get up it’s up to you if you want to go back down,” Diaz says. “Me personally, I’m trying to stay back up and just keep moving forward and stay positive.

If everything goes to plan, Diaz could persuade others in his neighborhood to follow in his footsteps.

Our story is part of  WGBH's ongoing series about community colleges and was produced in collaboration with The Takeaway’s Community College Challenge..

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