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Scholarship Sponsor Still Saying Yes

Graduates Thank Man Who Made College Possible

June 11, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Way back in fifth grade, when Derrick Johnson heard that a wealthy Hartford businessman would pay for his college education, its impact didn't sink in right away.

"When you're younger, you don't really understand," Johnson said.

But Johnson, now 26, never forgot the promise and - despite interrupting his college education for a couple of years - received a bachelor's degree in December.

Johnson and about 30 of his former fifth-grade classmates at Hartford's Annie Fisher School were honored Friday for earning college degrees under a promise made by George Weiss and four other sponsors back in 1990.

"I'm pumped. This is exciting," Weiss said as he received hugs from graduates of his Say Yes to Education program at a reception in Windsor. "They are great young men and women."

Weiss estimates he has spent more than $37 million running Say Yes programs offering scholarships to children from tough neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Hartford and Cambridge, Mass. Last year, he announced his most ambitious effort so far, a college education pledge to about 425 kindergarteners in Harlem.

Of course, the promise of a free college education is no guarantee. Over the years, some Say Yes students have dropped out of school, wound up in jail or become victims of drugs or violence, Weiss said.

Still, the final numbers are impressive as Weiss and others mark the formal end of the Hartford program. Sixty of the 76 fifth-graders in the Annie Fisher class - nearly 80 percent - graduated from high school. There were about 1,800 other fifth-graders in the city that year, and only about half that number eventually graduated from high schools in Hartford, according to figures from the state Department of Education.

The Say Yes program "had a huge influence on my life, to see the opportunity I had," Johnson said. "Of course, I live in Hartford. A lot of things happen. I could easily have been swayed in the wrong direction."

Johnson attended Virginia State University, a school he visited on a Say Yes tour of colleges, but had difficulty adjusting to college and came back to Hartford. He took community college classes and worked at an automobile emissions station for awhile, "but this was not something I could see myself doing forever."

He returned to Virginia State and got a degree in communications last December.

Nationwide, fewer than 9 percent of young people from low-income families (earning less than $35,900 a year) get bachelor's degrees by age 24, according to Tom Mortenson, an Iowa-based researcher who studies demographic trends and college attendance patterns. In the Hartford Say Yes class, 23 students, about 30 percent, got bachelor's degrees, while 11 others received associate degrees and nine earned trade certificates - a level of success Weiss considers a solid payoff on his investment.

"To be honest, I think it's been phenomenal," said Weiss, president of George Weiss Associates, a Hartford money management firm. "They are really productive members of society. That's what's really important."

The graduates came from a variety of colleges, from Capital Community College in Hartford to Howard University in Washington, to the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania.

In 1987, George and Diane Weiss, now divorced, started the first Say Yes program in Philadelphia, patterned after similar scholarship programs such as Eugene Lang's "I Have a Dream" project in East Harlem.

In the Hartford program, Weiss was joined by sponsors Mort and Irma Handel, John Berman and Berman's wife, Beverly, who has since died.

Urban children often face obstacles such as low grades, inadequate preparation and social barriers, but a report to Congress in 2002 said that college costs remained a major impediment to even the best-prepared low- and moderate-income students.

"My mother died when I was 10. My father had a sixth-grade education. He couldn't afford to put me through college," said Jatonda King, who got a degree in criminal justice last month from the University of New Haven. Without the Say Yes scholarship, she said, "I wouldn't have gone to college."

In addition to the financial promise of Say Yes, the program offered summer classes, tutoring and counseling - all aimed at keeping students on track for college.

"It wasn't just, `Call me when you're ready to go to college,'" said Connie Coles, director of the Hartford Say Yes program, based at the University of Hartford. "We did ... seminars, SAT preparation, college visits, overnight retreats, field trips - anything we could possibly do to prepare them.

One of the Hartford Say Yes students, Nikaki Abrahams, 24, said the program inspired her to help others. "It has made me want to continue to be a part of Say Yes to Education," said Abrahams, who got an accounting degree last year from the University of Hartford. "I still want to be involved in some way."

She will have a chance to do that, according to Coles, who plans to enlist Say Yes graduates to work as mentors and tutors for schoolchildren, including those in the new program in Harlem.

The newest Say Yes program in Harlem will include additional support, such as reading specialists to work with the kindergarteners. The first Say Yes program in Philadelphia was aimed at junior high students.

"The basic lesson we've learned," Weiss said, "is that these are great kids, but starting earlier gives us a much greater opportunity to be successful."

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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