At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, Taneka DeGrace is a one-woman tour de force of college advocacy. Officially, her job is to connect students to RoxMAPP, a dual enrollment program with local colleges. But her enthusiasm overflows the job description. DeGrace talks up college to any student who will listen, helps them with applications, follows up even after they’ve left Madison Park.

“You’d be amazed how many students who have graduated talk to me every day,” she said. “They need that one person to keep a hook in and make sure they’re ok.”

Even on of her vacation days, DeGrace can be found in her office counseling students like Angeline Santiago. As Santiago can attest, the woman is seemingly everywhere: “As soon as you meet her, she’ll stay on top of you. If she catches you in the hallway, she’ll ask why and get you back to class.”

And now DeGrace’s influence is spreading well beyond Madison Park to affect students throughout Boston. As part of a planning group convened by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, DeGrace played a key role in shaping the Tuition-Free Community College (TFCC) Plan, which enables graduates of Boston high schools to attend one of three local community colleges free of tuition or mandatory fees.

Drawing from her on-the-ground experience, DeGrace advocated for the plan to include a wider group of students – including those who had less than a 2.5 GPA and needed more developmental classes. These were the students, she said, who most needed the support.

“Because of the plan, I think we’re going to have more kids staying in and graduating college,” DeGrace said. “They’re getting help they wouldn’t have had before.”

Taneka DeGrace in her office at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.

DeGrace recruited heavily for the plan at her school, resulting in over 30% of TFCC’s first-year cohort hailing from Madison Park. But she didn’t stop there – because her students’ aspirations didn’t either.

“When we developed TFCC, I jumped ahead: The four-year colleges is where we really want to hit it,” she said.

That goal materialized in TFCC’s partnership with the state, the Boston Bridge, which enables eligible TFCC students to continue on to four-year college without ever having to pay tuition or mandatory fees. Announced just last spring, the Boston Bridge provides the financial support for a strategy DeGrace has long encouraged among her students: “If you can’t afford [four-year college], go to community college and get your grades up, then transfer after two years.”

DeGrace knows this route well: Community college served as her crucial stepping stone, too. She was 19, a single mother raising two daughters, when she started at Massasoit Community College. She worked full-time during the day and attended classes at night. But she did it, and then some, going on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Eastern Nazarene University.

“I don’t do excuses too well, especially when it comes to this,” she said. “We’ve all had hiccups. But we pick up and carry on.”

DeGrace tempers that tough love with unqualified support. Her door stands open and office freezer stands ready – with M&Ms, strawberry shortcake bars, and ice cream – for any student who drops by in search of college help.

Thanks to that help, Angeline Santiago has already completed two college courses – as a high school junior. She credits DeGrace with motivating her plans to pursue an electrical engineering degree.

“She’s the type of adult every student needs,” Santiago said.

And, perhaps, the type of advocate every city needs, too.

 

Special thanks to all who contributed their expertise to the TFCC planning committee, including: Kevin McCaskill, Executive Director, MPTVHS; Joao Gomes, Guidance Counselor, MPTVHS; Terrance Johnson, Director of Student Services, MPTVHS; Marsha Inniss-Mitchell, Director of Post-Secondary Partnerships and Initiatives, BPS; Eric Esteves, Director, Social Innovation Fund, The Boston Foundation; and Deandra Robinson, Special Projects Coordinator, Office of Opportunity & Achievement Gaps at BPS.