For nine years, at-risk students who disengaged from high school have found a new home and purpose at St. Paul's Gateway to College, and next week's graduating class of about 80 students could be its largest.

It also will be the last to be based at St. Paul College.

The college, citing a "consistent decline" in Gateway students successfully completing courses that award them post-secondary credits, said in March that it was ending its partnership with St. Paul Public Schools. The decision will force the district to shift programming to one of its own buildings — at least for the 2024-25 school year.

That leaves students without the inspiration that an on-campus presence can bring. Consider, too, that many kids had been turned off initially by a more traditional school environment.

"It's definitely going to be a harder conversation," Gateway counselor Jessie Hass said of maintaining current enrollment levels. "It was such a draw for students to be in a new setting."

Gateway is part of a national network that gives high school dropouts and at-risk students help earning diplomas — and college credits. Counselors like Hass have played vital roles through one-on-one advising and check-in opportunities that recent students credit with helping keep them on track.

The program launched in 2015-16 with 51 students, including 13 who were taking college-level courses.

But precisely what went wrong recently — at least from the college's point of view — is not clear.

Officials deferred to the St. Paul school district when asked by email last week to provide data backing the college's decision to no longer host Gateway. The district responded with a link to enrollment numbers that indicated the school — at 160 to 170 students — was on an upswing after a post-pandemic drop.

But Assistant Supt. Adam Kunz referred queries regarding any college-level performance details back to St. Paul College. "This is SPC's data," he said.

What is certain is Gateway plans to keep the same number of counselors next year when it relocates to the former John A. Johnson Elementary School and pursues a new post-secondary partner for the 2025-26 school year.

Campus experience with extra support

A year ago, Solea St. James was one of Gateway's 51 graduates. During a ceremony at St. Catherine University, she spoke of the "unwavering support and accommodation" by the school's staffers and counselors.

St. James suffered a traumatic brain injury in middle school that, she recalled then and in an interview recently, left her extremely sensitive to light, sound and scent. Later she worked closely with special education coordinators but fell behind in credits as she limited herself to half days and frequent sensory breaks.

At Gateway, she picked up the pace with the help of Hass, who St. James said was sympathetic to her needs and knew how to have them met at the college. She'd take exams in a special testing room. She used a pen that read books out loud as she highlighted the text. And at age 21, St. James graduated with honors.

"I didn't believe in myself as I should have, going into Gateway and St. Paul College," she said last week.

With next year's off-campus move, students new to Gateway will have to navigate a more rigorous enrollment process to take courses at St. Paul College, Hass said. If they need her help, they'll have to make a Zoom call or go to the East Side, where the school will have the luxury of more spacious offices.

Students can take college courses online, however.

Sam Langley, 20, had difficulty learning remotely during the pandemic, but because of her desire for in-person support, including mental health therapy, she plans to study at the new location. Last week, she met with Hass to plan for fall semester.

A former Central High student, Langley fell behind in her studies while competing as a rhythmic gymnast. She now plans to get her diploma next spring.

With Hass' help, she has set her sights on a watercolor art class, which she's taken up as a means of self-care. She's given people art, she said, and feels good about it — and about the coming school year.

"I am going to hold myself accountable by going to Gateway," Langley said. "I know that I can check in with Jessie when it's needed. So it makes it less scary knowing that there will still be support."