Benjamin Cruse had this unshakeable desire to replicate what he learned running an education academy for poor kids in Paraguay. The Ivy League-educated Cruse, reared in Hartford, figured that if he could learn Spanish and gain experience managing a staff, developing curriculum and supervising kids, then he could return home equipped to make a difference.
Meanwhile, Hartford Public High teacher John Hayes knew there was a dire need for an after-school program at the high school. He and Ted Carroll, president of Leadership Greater Hartford, bemoaned the problem and the challenge of finding the appropriate person to run it.
Well, the stars aligned. A five-year federal grant became available for education enrichment. Cruse returned to Hartford in August after a three-year stint as director of a South America learning academy. Carroll hired him as Leadership Greater Hartford's director of youth services. In January, Cruse will become the coordinator for a new after-school program - High Hopes Achievement - at Hartford Public's Law, Government and Community Leadership Academy.
From 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., about 100 sophomores will participate in leadership development classes - public speaking, reading enrichment, resumé writing and interviewing techniques will be among the skills taught. Eventually Cruse wants to expand the program to the entire 450-student academy, then to the other three academies at the high school: Technology, Career and Entrepreneurship, and Freshman.
The school's brand would be that of an extended day program, open 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., providing academic rigor and education preparation to students, many of whom are behind academically.
"We want to increase the amount of time that they're in school and give them that drive that academics are important," said Hayes. "Our kids here, they're capable. The processing power is unbelievable. But their skill level is deficient across the board."
Cruse, 25, started going to Paraguay when he was a student of Ron Garcia at Kingswood-Oxford in West Hartford. Garcia was from the village of Tobati and each year he would organize class trips to his homeland to help build classrooms and bathrooms. Cruse's broadened world view was one of the benefits of a private school experience, one that he initially resisted.
He enjoyed his time at Noah Webster public elementary school and wasn't exactly excited at the prospect of being a male kid of color - he's of African American, Polish and French descent - in his private school classes. Cruse, who grew up middle class in Hartford's West End, kept asking why he had to leave his hometown to get a quality education. He vowed to take what he learned from Renbrook School, Kingswood-Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania "to connect what I do to where I'm from."
"We have to raise our expectations for these kids," Cruse said Friday. "A `C' is not OK. We have to raise the bar. And if the kids fall short of that, then OK. But we have to give them the shot to achieve the highest."
High Hopes is an example of what happens when visions for improving urban education converge. And the money is available to support it.
Cruse directed Instituto Reinaldo Macchi in Paraguay, which initially served 15 underprivileged children. Today, it's a grade 7-9 school with 45 students learning English, computer literacy, music and dance.
"I knew I needed experience to do the types of things I wanted to do in Hartford," Cruse said.
He's got it now. And is ready to make a difference.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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