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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.
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