SOUTH PORTLAND — Just days into his college career, 18-year-old Johnny Henriquez found himself down on one knee, cranking away on a trebuchet – a medieval weapon that uses a counterweight to hurl missiles hundreds of feet at 55 miles an hour.

“Wow! That was fast!” Henriquez said after springing the 15-foot-tall wooden device, which was flinging plastic jugs of water that exploded violently on impact.

Henriquez, a Deering High School graduate, was sitting in on professor Kevin Kimball’s physics class as part of a new Southern Maine Community College program that helps academically at-risk students who have been enrolled but need remedial classes.

Sixteen students, all graduates of Portland schools, make up the inaugural “My Success” class, funded by a two-year $125,000 grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation, with matching funds from SMCC. It includes an intensive two-week summer program, a $200 summer stipend, a $500 scholarship toward the student’s first semester, and a coach to work with students year-round.

“The program targets kids that have a problem with a low rate of success,” said coach Maggie Loeffelholz. “We’re hoping that having more personal connection will help them be more successful.”

Portland Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan both praised the program, which is coordinated by Portland ConnectED, a community coalition that aims to improve educational outcomes for Portland students. About 80 percent of Portland students graduate from high school, but less than half earn a college credential within six years, according to a Portland ConnectED report released in April.

Lawmakers and education experts in Maine have increasingly been focused on the many students who are in the same situation as this group – accepted to college, but unable to do college-level work.

Last fall, Southern Maine Community College President Ron Cantor said 26 percent of the 135 Portland high school graduates who went to SMCC in 2011 dropped out after the first semester, and almost all of the students – 93 percent – needed at least one remedial course in math or English.

One-on-one attention and extra preparation in the summer can make the difference, Loeffelholz said. These students also lack basic skills needed for college, such as time management, she said. Many are the first ones in their families to go to college, and several are working, commuting or facing challenges in their personal lives.

“There are a lot of resources available to students, but they don’t know to ask,” Loeffelholz said. “That’s one of the goals for the program, to make those connections.”

Loeffelholz said she fields questions about everything from financial aid paperwork to how to find a classroom.

“They come in panicked sometimes. Panicked about their schedule and they just don’t know what to expect,” she said. “I’m just kind of getting them used to the college environment.”

Hugues Ingabire, 21, said the program is a step toward becoming a pediatrician. The Burundi native came to Portland last fall and has been enrolled in Portland Adult Education courses.

Ingabire said he didn’t think he would have been able to attend SMCC without the program.

“I have a barrier in English,” he said. “If I had to do this alone, it would have taken me months and months.”

Walkiria Funez, 18, a Deering High School graduate, said she wants to be a nurse anesthetist.

“(The program) has been really helpful,” she said. Funez was accepted at Saint Joseph’s College and the University of Southern Maine, but chose SMCC to save money. She lives with her parents, and juggles school with working about 20 hours a week at a Biddeford restaurant. “It’s hard.”

Those pressures can add up to a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, sometimes before students take a single class.

According to federal education statistics, 37 percent of community college students “melt” away in the summer between high school graduation and starting classes in the fall. For four-year colleges, the melt is 19 percent, according to the Department of Education.