Hartford Families, Staff At City School Plead With District To Save Say Yes Partnership
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
May 22, 2013
HARTFORD —— After six years as a founding partner at Global Communications Academy, the Say Yes to Education nonprofit has announced plans to leave the city school, upsetting families and staffers who are now pleading with district officials to save the relationship.
"Please, please, please, please," said Samariya Smith, president of Global's parent-teacher organization, choked up with tears at a city school board meeting this week.
Mothers, fathers and young teenagers credited Say Yes, which philanthropist and Hartford money manager George Weiss founded more than two decades ago to help inner-city youth, as crucial to creating a college-going culture that inspires students at their school to dream big.
"Why are you letting our lives be ruined?" asked eighth-grader Mirna Luyando, 14. "Why are you letting precious resources be ripped from us?"
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Say Yes have assured families that the foundation will keep its promise of paying the full college tuition for Global's current 380 students, the oldest of whom are ninth-graders, as long as they meet certain guidelines and attend partner colleges and universities.
That commitment would not apply to any new children entering the school in future years.
One reason Say Yes is ending the partnership is because the organization wants to focus on citywide initiatives, said Eugene Chasin, the foundation's chief operating officer based in New York. Say Yes currently has district compacts in Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y.
A second reason centers on the Hartford district's own scholarship program.
"The power of the postsecondary scholarships is a key to what makes Say Yes work," Chasin said. When Hartford revealed its Hartford Promise initiative — Weiss and Say Yes donated $500,000 in start-up money — "we saw some redundancy," Chasin added. Both the Global and district scholarships kick in with the Class of 2016.
Weiss could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Under the Promise plan, which Kishimoto introduced last year and formally unveiled in January, city students attending any four-year college could receive $5,000 per year, while those enrolled full-time at a two-year community college could get $2,500 annually if they meet the program's goals. The district expects many of its low-income students to also receive federal Pell Grant awards to help cover tuition.
But Global parents and students said Say Yes is more than a source for college tuition.
The nonprofit's Hartford chapter began in 1990 when Weiss and four other sponsors pledged to give college scholarships to a group of fifth-graders at Annie Fisher Elementary School. Sixty of the 76 students graduated from high school, including 23 who received bachelor's degrees and 20 others who earned associate degrees or trade certificates, Weiss has said.
A few Global parents have told administrators that they are Say Yes alumni, and specifically enrolled their children at the school out of devotion to the program and how it prepared them for life.
While Global's scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test hovered below the Hartford average last year, except for seventh-grade reading and writing, several parents said elementary students are already excited about going to college.
The school, a candidate to become an International Baccalaureate program, enrolls students in kindergarten to fifth grade, as well as grades 8 to 9, with eventual expansion to all middle and high school grades. It opened in 2008 after a year of planning with Say Yes, which funds two coordinators at Global.
Children begin learning a second language in kindergarten. There are Saturday academies, summer enrichment programs and college field trips that are typically rare for Hartford kids. Nearly all the Global students are identified as black or Latino.
"Say Yes To Education took me to Yale, Tufts — schools I've wanted to see for years," said 14-year-old Alexis Tosado, an eighth-grader. "How many students get to do that in sixth grade?"
After Kishimoto and Chasin met with the school community Monday night to explain Say Yes' decision, parents said they felt blindsided by the news. "My initial thought is, 'How can you mess this up?'" said Mayra Esquilin, a mother and executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together.
"Pick up the phone," Esquilin told Kishimoto. "Call George Weiss."
Kishimoto said Say Yes leaders planned to meet Wednesday to further discuss the situation. She told parents Tuesday night that she hoped the organization would reconsider, although Chasin said the nonprofit has been speaking with district administrators about transitioning out of the partnership since last summer.
"Our next step," Principal Kimberly Stone-Keaton said, is to "plead" with Weiss. Around March, as it became clear to her that the partnership would cease, she wrote a letter to Weiss but hasn't received a response, Stone-Keaton said.
Students recently videotaped testimonials about their school experience in an attempt to sway Say Yes. They also signed a petition.
"I don't foresee any kind of significant change," Chasin said after a Say Yes board meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
The foundation will continue to fund the two Say Yes positions at the school through the 2013-14 year to give the district time to find alternate, "sustainable" funding, Chasin said. Kishimoto has asked the school board to provide that money in the future.
In addition, Say Yes will have an employee from its Hartford office occasionally visit the school to provide college counseling until the current students have graduated from Global, Chasin said.
Roselynn Santana said she feared the tuition scholarship would eventually be rescinded. Her son Marquis, a ninth-grader, has attended the school since the beginning and "now you've got them stressed," said Santana, who described herself as a single parent in debt.
Merline Clark, Global's school social worker, compared the district's relationship with Say Yes to a marriage that has apparently soured.
Students have worked hard over the past five years, Clark said, despite being located in temporary, cramped quarters. Currently, they're in the basement of the Lewis Fox Middle School building. Global is scheduled to move next academic year to the former Quirk Middle campus, which is undergoing a $55 million renovation.
At times, parents in a failing marriage "begin to lose sight of the prize, which is the children," Clark said. "Something happened ... It seems like you took your eyes off the prize."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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