Step Forward Program Helps Students Adapt During COVID-19

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

When transitioning to remote learning last spring, like her colleagues, Gateway Community College Step Forward Director Jaime French took a new approach to make her hands-on curriculum work for students. Yet with highly individualized instruction and young adults with mild cognitive disabilities, relying heavily on technology posed even greater challenges for the program she has overseen for 16 years. The program would need to make different use of technology to connect with students. French noted that the timing of the move to remote instruction helped tremendously in how the students could adapt. She assessed the progress of each student and felt a sense of relief.

“I could say with confidence we touched on all the content,” French said. 

As the new learning model took shape, teachers and staff maintained contact to keep students on track, helping them to feel less isolated. Staff helped the students learn strategies to deal with the pressure they felt. Meetings with advisors took place over the phone. Students who were enrolled in credit courses at GCC in addition to the Step Forward program received added support processing what their professors were looking for in their assignments. Group email chats also helped the students stay connected.

As GCC students returned to campus this fall for a limited number of classes, the Step Forward students have been among those who are regularly on campus. The schedule the students follow is very similar to the usual format, but work internships are not scheduled and more resume writing and career planning have been incorporated. If at any time it becomes necessary to move to remote learning, detailed plans are in place to move instruction to an online format.

The success of the program, which is the only community college-run program of its kind in Connecticut, is in how it empowers students to branch out and experience college life. French noted that in Step Forward, students can see themselves differently from how they were in high school, gain independence, and find acceptance from peers. She added that students frequently come into the program and reinvent themselves, making the most of their college experience. Step Forward provides an educational environment customized to the learning style of its students and they are involved in all aspects of their educational experience.  

In Step Forward I, the curriculum focuses on interpersonal communication, daily living skills, college readiness, and workplace readiness. Upon completion, a student’s team of professionals recommends either a repeat of Step Forward I, exit, or promotion to Step Forward II, which also offers a High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder program. Those who move into Step Forward II take courses for college credit and the expectation for students is higher.  Behind the scenes, scaffolding to support students as they move toward a degree comes in many forms, from help with emails and interpreting class expectations to introducing students to GCC’s support services, such as the tutoring center.  Students attend non-credit seminars to enhance their study, time management, social, and organizational skills. 

Step Forward is quickly filling up for Fall 2021. For information about Step Forward, please contact Jaime French for a virtual tour and/or meeting at (203) 285-2505 or

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