The 31 students in Santa Rosa Junior College's new Gateway to College program are missing something that's normally a prerequisite to college — a high school diploma.

The youths, 16- to 20-year-olds from around Sonoma County, have either dropped out of high school or are a year or two behind in the credits they need to graduate. The program, held at SRJC's Petaluma campus in partnership with Petaluma City Schools, provides them a second chance to attain their high school degrees — while also earning college credits and working toward an associate's degree or certificate.

Vanessa Luna Shannon, the program's director, said the students enrolled in the program come from a variety of backgrounds — some from foster care, others from more stable homes — but most had some experience in their lives that set them back academically.

"A lot have had a difficult life experience that caused depression, anxiety, interfered with their ability to feel motivated," she said. "What I've found is that the students are interested, they really have the same goals that we have for them — to be successful, finish their diploma — but they've just struggled in trying to get to that."

Eighteen-year-old Jose Clemente Aparicio, a former Casa Grande High School student, said he felt a lack of motivation brought on by the uncertainty of his legal status in the country. Born in Mexico, he wanted to be a police officer but believed he could not achieve that goal.

"I thought, even if I go to school and I get my degree, I won't be able to work in the field I want," he said. So, by the time he was supposed to graduate this May, he was 15 credits behind. Then, he was offered new hope when President Barack Obama launched a program allowing young immigrants the chance to apply for a two-year work permit and stay in the country legally. At that point, Aparacio said he realized, "Wow, I'm way behind."

Then a high school counselor told him about Gateway to College. The program is offered on campuses around the country, and SRJC is one of three colleges in the state starting a program this academic year. SRJC received a $325,000, three-year contract to launch the program, which is designed to become self-sustaining by receiving Average Daily Attendance revenue paid by the state to the college and through an agreement with its K-12 partners.

Clemente Aparicio and the other students in the program completed a lengthy application process to be accepted, filling out what Luna Shannon described as a "rigorous" application and attending an information session, a two-day evaluation and a full-day orientation. At the orientation, they had to bring at least one "support" person — a friend or family member — who would help them reach their goals.

Participants attend SRJC's Petaluma Campus full-time and enroll in intensive reading, writing and math classes to complete their high school diploma. They are also required to take courses in college success, counseling and physical education. SRJC hired staff specifically to assist students with academic planning, financial aid, scholarships, disability services, psychological services, and referrals for services like off-campus housing and transportation. Students do not have to pay tuition while working toward their high school diploma.

Petaluma City Schools Director of Student Services Dave Rose said that when SRCJ approached the district seeking a partnership, "It just seemed like a natural fit as far as providing other options for students."

"One of the school board's major goals is to continuously look at graduation rates, look for opportunities for students to get their high school diplomas," he said, explaining that his district has a 91 percent graduation rate, compared to 78 percent for the county. That's due in part to the district's staff's willingness to provide other options to students, such as alternate high schools, adult education and now Gateway to College, he said.

The district staff went through a list of students who dropped out over the last couple years and sent letters to see if they'd be interested in the Gateway program. Rose said for many students, the social interactions on high school campuses can be too distracting, and the focused program at SRJC could provide a more serious learning environment.

"One of the things I like to talk to students about is being in an environment where all the students are choosing to be in school, versus a K-12 environment where it's a mandate," he said. "Immature things that happen on high school campuses are not going to be accepted."

Luna Shannon expressed a similar sentiment. She says she can relate to the students in the program, as she also struggled with school, especially during middle school. After high school, she attended SRJC, an experience she says changed her life.

"Academically, I didn't get my footing until SRJC," she said.

Already, students in the program are spreading the word to their friends and family, Luna Shannon said.

"It's amazing to me, every day I get some type of reinforcement we're doing the right thing," she said. "A student will say, 'I really like my classes' with an element of surprise, because it's a subject matter they've struggled with in the past."

Clemente Aparicio said that he enjoys the college environment, where he feels freer — though he said the mandatory nature of some of the classes reminds him of high school. He says he plans to stick with the program and earn his high school diploma and his associate's degree. Then, he said, he'll move on to Sonoma State University, all the while getting closer to his goal of becoming a police officer.

SRJC is recruiting students for its spring semester and hopes to start the semester with 50 additional students.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)