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Showing City Kids The Way To College

June 7, 2006
By STACEY McCANN, Courant Staff Writer

It has been only a decade since I became the first in my family to earn a degree from a four-year university. I began my career as a teacher at Annie Fisher Elementary School in Hartford, and now, as principal of the city's Henry C. Dwight Elementary School, I look at my students and can clearly see the promise of higher education in their future.

As a Hartford resident brought up in a hard-working, single-parent family, I had the opportunity to graduate from the University of Hartford as a Hartford Scholar - a program that provides the city's students with half-tuition at a private university in their back yard. The Hartford Scholars Program invested in me, and now it's time to return that investment to Hartford's schoolchildren.

My determination to go to college began at SAND Elementary School in the city's North End. It was there that two dedicated African-American women, Emma Rose, the school's former librarian, and teacher Geraldine Green, took an interest in me and fortunately decided that I wasn't going to be "left behind."

I share the same vision and mission that my students at Dwight will "never be left behind." For them, the question is not whether they will go to college. They will.

The only questions that remain are what college they will attend and what year they will graduate.

For many of Hartford's children, however, college is only a pipe dream. Hartford is the second-poorest city in the nation, where almost 44 percent of the city's youth, or 16,000 children, live below the poverty level. In fact, only 35 percent of the city's 766 graduating seniors went to a four-year college last year.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez aims to increase the number of Hartford students who go on to four-year colleges and universities by 25 percent in five years. He also hopes to attract more of these graduates from four-year programs to give back to their community by living and working in Hartford.

At Dwight, I am working every day to meet and exceed the mayor's goal by continually exposing my 500 students to opportunities in higher education. On any given day, any one of my students - from kindergarten through fifth grade - can tell you which year he or she will be entering college.

All of Dwight's students recently visited Central Connecticut State University as part of Early College Awareness Week, and participated in activities designed to inspire them to pursue higher education. This experience helped my young students to see the possibilities in their future and, most important, helped them understand how to access these opportunities.

The opportunity for me to attend college was due to the dedication of teachers who cared, and to the vision and generosity of donors who supported the Hartford Scholars Program. Since the program was created in 1990, approximately 400 city students have enrolled at the University of Hartford and 57 percent of them have graduated. Now it is time for individuals, corporations and institutions to continue that vision and watch Hartford's children rise to meet high expectations.

Many institutions are already making a significant impact on the lives of students in this community. St. Paul Travelers has adopted Dwight by committing financial resources to our school along with its employees' time and talent. The MassMutual Foundation recently launched a program that will send city students to the University of Connecticut with four years of financial assistance. And many institutions, corporations, and individuals are supporting The Hartford Scholars Program at its annual benefit dinner today.

It does not matter whether a child is the product of an impoverished household, education is their key to college. I too was one of 25,000 students in an urban school district who wanted the American Dream. Now, I am in the fortunate position of guiding my wonderful and talented pool of students to their dream of attending college.

I am proof that no one can take education away from a child. A seed was planted for me and then watered by individuals who believed in me. I ask you to join me in the critical mission of helping Hartford's students get to college by adopting a classroom, volunteering your time or donating to a scholarship fund.

Third-grader Abner Himely sums it all up in a sentence. "If I don't go to college, I won't get enough money to take care of myself and give back to my community."

Stacey McCann is principal of Henry C. Dwight Elementary School in Hartford, a 2005 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon school.

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.
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