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First Graduating Class Shows If Students Have The Will, This Program Can Find A Way

By Rick Green

March 28, 2012

Atesha Gifford was a 12-year-old on a mission when I met her back in the summer of 2007, a precocious kid out to change family history.

"I'm trying to break the chain in my family, a chain of high school dropouts,'' Atesha told me.

When we talked that August morning at Trinity College, Atesha was one of the first 31 students in the ambitious Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation. It was an intriguing dream: Take a group of B students with few options for higher education and mold them into college material after school, on weekends, and during summer vacations.

The plan was to get as many of the students as possible into Connecticut prep schools. Over time, it evolved into also helping students who stayed at public high schools in Hartford.

The good news? The first class is headed off to college. Of the original 31, 21 will attend school in the fall. An additional 75 students are in the pipeline. The catch? None of this is about luck. It takes a lot of work, scholarships and money.

"It was the fact that we wanted it so badly that we just kept going,'' Atesha told me when I got together with her and four classmates, again at Trinity, where the program has an office. "I want to surround myself with people who want the same things as I do, and who are as motivated as I am."

Atesha will graduate this spring from Westminster School, a place she has grown to love after a bumpy transition from Hartford to boarding at the Simsbury independent school.

"I felt really out of place. I didn't feel like I would ever be happy or achieve anything I set my mind to,'' she said, recalling the feeling of being one of the few black students on campus. "After a while I realized I should take full opportunity of the advantage I had been given. I have made a lot of different friends now."

Atesha will attend High Point University in North Carolina. Her classmates are still considering admission offers and anxiously awaiting financial aid decisions.

The lesson here isn't that Hartford students should head to private school. It's that for city kids to succeed, there must be a menu of opportunities and a lot of extra help to make up for what's missing in their lives. One thing is clear, with just 6 in 10 high school students graduating on time in Hartford, there's plenty of room for more options.

The privately funded Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation now has 106 students in the program, with about 60 percent in private schools and 40 percent in public high schools in Hartford. Students have to apply for entry and are selected by the foundation's board of directors. This week, the foundation is selecting 30 more students, who will begin a 26-month program this summer aimed at getting them into an independent school. If they remain in public school, they will receive even more support..

The program primarily provides after-school and summer tutoring for academic programs, but there is also training in leadership, etiquette and social skills. Students admitted to private schools that participate in the initiative generally receive full financial aid packages.

One young man I spoke with, Rey Rosario, grew up in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, where his only school was West Middle School. Through the Youth Scholars, he landed at Avon Old Farms, a coat-and-tie world where he found the expectations for students were far different.

"Normally in the public school there was not much motivation. There is more distraction. There is hardly anyone sitting still. At my first [English] class I was like where am I? There I was in a blazer and tie."

The interesting thing about talking to some of these kids is that they all keep talking about how grateful they were for being held to what sometimes seemed like unreasonable standards.

"We set high expectations for them and we give them all the tools to meet those expectations,'' said Roxanna Miller, a director with the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation. "One of the most important things for them is that from seventh grade on they are told they are going to college. It's like a second family."

"It's not for every kid. We look for kids who wouldn't necessarily get to college on their own."

Not every student, of course, is willing to give up vacations and after-school time, to move to a boarding school, all for the sake of a college dream.

These teenagers told me one of the biggest changes was to enter a world where all students were expected to get involved and college was just assumed.

Karolina Kwiecinska - another young woman I first met five years ago described first meeting her new classmates at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor. "There who were kids who had been dancing their whole lives and doing this or that and playing sports and all I knew how to do was read books. I was homesick for a really long time,'' Karolina said.

Gradually, Karolina said, something clicked.

"Some people overlook how much Hartford students are capable of. No one can get better at anything unless you push them."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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