08/10/2012 11:08 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2012

New Haven Promise Program Yields Just 62 Percent Eligible For Second Year Of College Scholarship

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

Of the 115 city kids who scored New Haven Promise scholarships last year, 71 made it through freshman year of college with good enough grades to stay in the program. A new class Wednesday aimed to do better.

That figure for one of New Haven’s showpiece school reform programs—dubbed “disappointing” by the mayor—emerged along with a new batch of college-bound city students Wednesday night.

In a ceremony at the Shubert Theater, Promise awarded partial college scholarships to another 123 public school students who graduated from high school in May. Those 123 became the second class to take part in a new experiment to encourage kids to go to college —and help them make it through.

Promise, funded by Yale University and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, grants up to full free tuition to in-state public colleges and universities for New Haven kids who keep up a B average and good attendance at public city high schools. The amount of the scholarship is being phased in: In the second year of the program, kids will now receive up to 50 percent of tuition at in-state public colleges and universities, or up to $1,250 at in-state private, nonprofit colleges and universities.

Yale has pledged to pay up to $4 million per year to keep Promise going. In its inaugural year, the program started out small: It accepted 115 students and awarded $93,000 in scholarships, according to Promise spokeswoman Betsy Yagla.

Of those 115, only 71 kept up the 2.5 GPA required to keep their scholarship for their sophomore year, Yagla said.

Mayor John DeStefano, who created Promise and sits on its board, called that figure “disappointing.”

“We want to see all of them” persisting in college and getting good grades, he said. “We need to accept responsibility for that performance,” he said, and figure out why it happened. He called the number “a cause for concern for us and the colleges.”

It’s not clear how many of the 115 students are returning to college despite losing the Promise scholarship. Yagla said staff had not yet crunched those numbers.

Garth Harries, assistant superintendent of the school district, said the school system and Promise need to reflect on “what better preparation the kids need, and what better support they need” once they’re in college.

The city has been looking at college persistence rates for the first time as part of its school reform drive. At the city’s biggest high school, Wilbur Cross, only 18 percent of the Class of 2004 received a college degree within six years of graduation, according to a report by a state panel. At James Hillhouse, the second-biggest school, the number was 15 percent.

Patricia Melton, Promise’s incoming director, said Promise needs to work to “develop that connection” with its students once they’re in college. “We are going to be there to help them through.”

Melton sent that message directly to students from the Shubert stage.

A first-generation college student whose mother died when she was 12, Melton told kids how she beat the odds and made it through Yale. She urged kids to “stay in touch with us—because we are definitely going to be there for you.”

She was speaking to a new class of Promise scholars that is slightly larger than the last.

In the program’s second year, Promise slightly expanded its reach. A total of 352 high school seniors applied for the scholarship and 172 qualified, according to Yagla. Of those, 123 chose to take up the offer and 118 plan to enroll in the fall as full-time students, Yagla said. That number may grow as students appeal their rejection from the program.

Melton shook the hands of students she hoped would follow her example.

When Jose Suriel took the stage, his family let out a burst of applause.

It turned out they had a good reason.

Jose’s mom, Sheila Rivera, recounted how Jose came to beat the odds—and set an example for his three siblings.

Rivera was 17, attending Hill Regional Career High School, when she got pregnant with Jose. She made it to graduation in 1994, then gave birth to her first son four months later.

Rivera said she tried to go to college but had to drop out several times. First she enrolled at Gateway Community College, then quit when her son was sick in the hospital. She later enrolled at the Connecticut Business Institute and became a medical assistant. She tried returning to Gateway for her bachelor’s, but dropped out when she had her second child.

She now works at Yale Medical School as the senior administrative assistant in the department of pediatrics.

“I have this big title, but I have no education,” she said.

She said her son has been an inspiration to her as she seeks to fix that problem.

When Jose graduated from Career in May, he wore two tassels—his own, and one belonging to his mom from 1994. Now they’re both studying on parallel tracks: Rivera is taking college classes online, at the Florida Technical Institute, to earn a B.A. in forensic psychology. And her son plans to study psychology as he heads to the University of Connecticut in the fall.

Rivera said she studies from 10 p.m. to midnight every night. “Mommy’s going to school now,” she tells her kids. During that time, “if it ain’t broken and you’re not bleeding, leave Mommy alone.”

“Or if you can’t breathe,” added her daughter, Efrencheli Ducos, who suffers from asthma.

Rivera said when her son got accepted to UConn, he hesitated. “Can we afford it?” he asked. He knew his mom was supporting four kids on her own as well as attending college. He offered to commute to school to save money, but she insisted he go.

“We’ll find a way” to pay, she said. The full cost of attending UConn is $22,742. Promise is paying $3,500, which is half of the tuition. To pay for the room and board and textbooks, the family plans to take out a $1,500 loan. And Rivera said Jose is going to look for a job in campus security.

River said the family will find a way to make the payments.

“Something is better than nothing at all,” she said.

Jose has already spent six weeks at UConn in an academic boot camp over the summer. He’ll arrive at college with 10 college credits and “100 friends” from the program, he said.

“People always said he wasn’t going to make it, because I was a child having a child,” Rivera said. “He blew them all away.”

Rivera said Jose, who’s 18, has been a role model to his three younger siblings, who are now talking about going to college.

Jose gave his mom the credit.

“She’s been my inspiration,” he said. “She’s definitely had a harder life than I did.” He said his family’s story goes to show that “even though we’re not the richest, we can go anywhere we want—even if it’s a top school.”