Great expectations for the New Haven Promise

On its face, it seems like a straightforward proposition: Yale University announced last month that it will offer college scholarships to New Haven public school students who meet attendance and performance requirements.

But the New Haven Promise, as is called, is being looked to as a solution to many of the city’s problems.

“Our first concern is the 38 percent dropout rate,” said New Haven’s Mayor John DeStefano, who partnered with Yale to develop the program. “We’re also looking for a reduction in the achievement gap and halving the drop out rate over five years.”

“And this is as much an anti-violence and workforce development strategy as it is a scholarship program,” said the Mayor.

The initiative also has been hailed as an incentive for school reform and a way to attract new people to the city.

But will the program really accomplish all its supporters hope it will?

“When you list all these lofty goals, it seems like a lot,” said Janis Astor del Valle, director of Youth Rights Media, a New Haven-based nonprofit, though she lauded Yale for its efforts.

“It’s a wonderful idea and I’d love to see it realized,” she said. “But we need to look at the schools and hold them accountable for serving all the students, not just the cream of the crop. What about those students without a 3.0 and a 90 percent attendance rate?”

Modeled on similar programs in Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Promise will pay college tuition for students enrolled in the New Haven Public School system, provided they attend an in-state 2- or 4-year public university or college. Students who choose a private school, such as Yale, will receive a yearly $2,500 grant.

To qualify, students will have to maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average in high school, have a 90 percent attendance record and have performed at least 40 hours of community service.

These are no small feats for kids facing systemic poverty, homelessness, truant fathers, and profound violence, said Erik Clemons, Executive Director of LEAP, an academic and social enrichment non-profit working with youth in the city.

“This is an amazing moment for New Haven,” said Clemons. “But the conversation that has to persist is about the social conditions of children in this city.”

So the program’s long-term success in fixing an underperforming school system, say Clemons and others, will depend heavily on local community investment.

But a very lack of community involvement is one del Valle’s concerns about the Promise. She hasn’t seen the city reach out to local non-profits for help. “I would hope the city would want to work with the organizations already on the ground, doing this work.”

“I was at a meeting this month at the Citywide Youth Coalition, and I can tell you that people in the community feel they’ve been snubbed and not even recognized in this process,” she said. “Why weren’t we voices at the table in the planning?”

While true community involvement may prove to be the missing link, experts say similar initiatives have shown promise.

“These types of programs are fairly new,” said Professor Donald E. Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State. “But the research out there has found that it does raise the aspirations of poor students.”

“They’re more willing to consider college once they are promised the funding.”

Kalamazoo’s Promise program has been operational for two years. A study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows that enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools has increased by over 1,000 students, test scores have improved, and real estate values in the community have risen 8-10% over the past two years.

Will New Haven see the same results?

“The most important thing is making the promise early enough so students can prepare accordingly,” said Heller. Family involvement is also key, he said.

School change is also at play here. “The promise is not valuable as a standalone project. It only made sense in the context of larger school reform,” said DeStefano.

So donor focus is not on college enrollment, said the Mayor, but on making schools better.

To that effect, New Haven Promise will look to College Summit, an organization working to build up a “college culture” in school districts. They’ll provide curriculum and messaging aimed at parents and students. A parallel program, College Corps, will send teams of undergraduate students and other New Haven residents to the homes of younger students. “They’ll work to build up aspiration and the desirability of college,” DeStefano said.

But again, Clemons and del Valle said the program will only work when the community gets involved.

“It’s important that we all really now invest in the children and affirm the idea of going to college,” said Clemons. “It’s important that they’ll engage the Promise despite their social condition.”

And while it’s great to try and get more people to move to the city by offering an attractive scholarship, says Del Valle, she worries about the people here who are already struggling. “We’ve got serious problems in our schools,” said del Valle. “Kids graduating who can barely read, and some who won’t be able to perform in the workforce.”

So those students, their families, and the organizations working with them should be involved, she says, in order for the program to really address the barriers New Haven students face.

“This is about community inclusion,” said del Valle. “We should be able to work together.”