UP CLOSE | A unique Promise

The Yale-backed New Haven Promise initiative handed out 110 scholarships this summer.
The Yale-backed New Haven Promise initiative handed out 110 scholarships this summer. Photo by Brian Chang.

Fourteen-year-old Odia Kane is driven.

A New Haven resident and freshman at Engineering and Science University Magnet School on State Street, she wants to go to Yale after graduation. She wants to be a diplomat, or maybe a biomedical engineer, but she definitely wants to run her own business, too.

As a freshman, she’s part of the first class of New Haven Public Schools students eligible to receive a full scholarship to a Connecticut university, and, should she fulfill her goals and graduate in Yale’s class of 2019, she’ll be among the first to take full advantage of the Yale-backed scholarship program known as New Haven Promise.

For Kane and her classmates, Promise marks an unprecedented opportunity in New Haven. Though excitement about the program was high among students at first, she says it has since waned as the scholarship has become more well-known.

“It’s like in math — when you finally get the concept, you don’t always go back and try to learn,” Kane said of Promise. “Now it’s just kind of a fact.”

The promise will fund New Haven students to go to public and private universities (students receive less for private universities). But it will do much more than that. It will teach elementary school students that college is not an option but a priority, and it will keep a stronger, better-educated workforce in Connecticut, supporters say. And starting this fall, the staff over at Promise will put together workshops for parents, teaching them to bank, save and prepare their kids for college.

When New Haven Promise launched last November, the city declared it a “groundbreaking announcement” that would “change New Haven and the region forever,” as a press release stated. Jessica Mayorga, then the spokeswoman for City Hall, claimed it would be “the most significant announcement ever made in New Haven.”

This summer, the program handed out 110 scholarships. Yale has pledged up to $4 million a year for the program. Whether the program meets that amount remains to be seen, but its directors are hopeful that, in the not-too-distant future, they’ll have to do fundraising in order to provide scholarship money for all the students who have earned it.

In the city, at least, the program has been widely praised. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, called it a program that liberals and conservatives alike can appreciate.

“There’s almost nothing about it you can’t like,” Cicarella said.

But some experts in education reform interviewed expressed doubts that New Haven Promise can be truly transformational for New Haven. They take particular issue with its 3.0 GPA requirement, among others, saying it will not reach underrepresented students it hopes to help.

“My question is, when you have a population of students that is struggling so much, and the criteria for success is a 3.0, how will that help them?” asked Janice Brown, the executive director of the nation’s first Promise program. “It will not.”

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. speaks about the New Haven Promise program.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. speaks about the New Haven Promise program.

THE GPA REQUIREMENT

Since 2005, Brown has garnered national attention as the pioneer behind Kalamazoo Promise, which gives scholarships to any student that graduates from a public high school in Kalamazoo, Mich. She claims that one of the fundamental tenets of the program is its ability to provide funds to all students, regardless of past academic success.

“To put that 3.0 on is, to me, a very middle-class approach to scholarship. It is not a universal approach to scholarship,” Brown said. “There are many scholarships that have a 3.0 attached that have absolutely no meaning for the poorest of the poor, or the underrepresented.”

Michelle Miller-Adams, a Kalamazoo-based political scientist, published a book on Kalamazoo Promise, titled “The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo,” in 2009. She works extensively with Kalamazoo Promise, and said she has a “conceptual problem” with calling New Haven Promise a promise program at all, particularly because of its 3.0 limit.

“You’d be amazed at how many complexities there are with the Kalamazoo Promise, which has almost no rules,” Miller-Adams said. “I do think there is going to be a fair amount of unhappiness around that 2.99 line — it’s an arbitrary cutoff.”

Byrne, DeStefano and the team at City Hall disagree on this principle, which defines the main difference between New Haven Promise and the wider-reaching programs in Kalamazoo and other cities. They want students to be rewarded only if they work hard. In that they are not alone — the Pittsburgh Promise, the largest Promise program in the nation, requires that students earn a 2.5 GPA in high school to receive a scholarship. For Saleem Ghubril, the director of Pittsburgh Promise, the scholarship is just one part of reorienting the city toward a college-going mindset.

“The scholarship is the cherry on top of the sundae,” Ghubril said. “It’s not the sundae.”

When considered objectively, the structure of New Haven Promise is nothing novel — in fact, a similar program has been in place for the entire state of Georgia since the early 1990s. If Georgia public school students could maintain a 3.0 GPA in high school and a 3.0 GPA at an in-state public college, the 1993 legislation stated, the state would pay their tuition. But in its nearly two decades, HOPE has not increased access to college, said David Mustard, a University of Georgia professor who has been studying the scholarship program. Its primary effect has been to encourage high-achieving students in the state, Mustard said.

In its first year, Georgia HOPE (short for “Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally”) dished out around $21 million in scholarships; last year alone, it gave nearly $700 million. The program grew at such a rate that it is known today as HOPE Lite, and has upped its requirements to provide scholarships only to students who have a 3.7 or higher in high school and can maintain a 3.3 in college.

That’s exactly what 14-year-old Odia Kane said her friends worry about.

“They’re just afraid the New Haven Promise won’t go to them,” she said. “They’re afraid that something might happen to the program, and the program won’t be there anymore.”

NOT JUST A SUPPORT PROGRAM

The program’s requirements are among the most stringent of the roughly two dozen Promise-type programs in the nation. The Pittsburgh Promise is offered to students with a 2.5 grade point average. Kalamazoo Promise requires only that students graduate from high school. In order to be eligible for a New Haven Promise scholarship, students must live in New Haven, maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average in high school, show up to school 90 percent of the time and complete 40 hours of community service. GPAs will be weighted so that students taking Advanced Placement or honors courses will not be unfairly disadvantaged, said Emily Byrne, now the program’s director.

If a student meets these criteria, New Haven Promise will pay full tuition at a Connecticut state college or university, and partial tuition at a private school within Connecticut.

Promise funds cannot be used at trade or technical schools. Nor can the money be used at out-of-state schools.

In limiting the scholarship to high-achieving students, DeStefano, Levin and their colleagues hope to raise the aspirations of families and encourage students to work harder in school. They want to create a culture in which excellence was rewarded, and in which students, and families, strive for that excellence.

“You should have to earn it,” DeStefano said. “This was not meant to be an entitlement program.”

In addition, students who can’t manage a 3.0 in New Haven public schools, DeStefano pointed out, will likely have problems making their way through the college and obtaining a degree. Byrne added that sending students to a four-year college if they do not meet these requirements could be setting them up for failure, and that would be unfair. Ultimately, the goal of this program is not to “do everything,” Byrne said, or to pad New Haven’s numbers, but to produce skilled workers who will contribute positively to the city economy.

“We’re going to be judging ourselves not by how many go to college but by how many graduate from college,” Levin said.

MORE THAN JUST ADMISSION

New Haven Promise, Byrne said, is an eight-year program. Students officially become Promise scholars when they get to high school and graduate from the program when they leave their Connecticut university with a diploma.

Like many scholarship programs, Promise will require academic success from students while they’re in college — students must maintain a 2.5 GPA throughout college to continue receiving the Promise scholarship.

“It will give them a grace period, but only one,” Byrne says matter-of-factly. “If it’s two semesters in a row they get cut.”

Once a student gets cut, there’s no rejoining the program. Byrne admits it’s tough, but she also said she does not expect many students to face this dilemma — after all, they limited the scholarship to high-achieving high school students who would likely be successful in college anyway. If students do see their GPA dip below a 2.5, Byrne said the program will direct them to resources at their college that can help ensure they receive at least a 2.5 next semester.

For New Haven Promise, Byrne emphasizes, on-time graduation is key, and that means keeping students accountable for their academic work. But Promise will not offer any direct support system for students when they get to college — that’s not the program’s job, Byrne says. Instead, they’ll provide advice and support to pre-existing programs at the colleges. At the end of this summer, Byrne met with a few dozen Promise scholars who were getting ready to head off to college. She will keep in touch with them throughout the year, and report back to universities what the students are saying they need. Byrne said the support will mostly help students with questions about Pell Grants or academics, or those first-generation college students who need extra emotional help — if, say, a student feels guilty for being the first in their family to go to college.

The bulk of New Haven Promise’s job, instead, is to prepare students so that they know what to expect once they do show up on a college campus. City officials say there are two key steps to doing this: starting the students young, and getting the parents involved.

To get the students involved young, New Haven Promise established “Pathway to Promise” this May, a one-of-a-kind program designed to get students thinking about college in early elementary school. Pathway’s full curriculum will be announced later this month, said Betsy Yagla, spokeswoman for New Haven Promise.

“We talk about education reform in terms of what adults are or are not doing,” Byrne said. “We never actually talk about kids. … You don’t just want to give them a handout. You want to teach them that, if you work hard, we’ll give you this great opportunity.”

This summer the city also launched CollegeCorps, a program in which college students knock on doors to talk to parents about sending their children to college one day. And next month Promise will launch its semiannual parent workshops. Applications are coming in now for the 20 spots in each workshop, which will teach parents about long-term savings and banking, and instruct them in the “legalese” necessary to navigate financial aid forms, Yagla said.

SCHOOL DISTRICT ON A HILL

Byrne and team have, from the get-go, made sustainability their top priority, she said. Much of the program’s tough love — the GPA cutoff, the one-semester grace period — comes from this desire to create a program that can remain strong, without massive donations.

Even Miller-Adams, who says New Haven’s Promise is just for “smart kids,” recognizes that not every community has the same resources or needs as Kalamazoo. Her town is lucky, she says, to have a network of anonymous billionaires willing to drop $200 million to fund college education for all, even those who might not finish.

“Kalamazoo is a very inspiring example, but it can also be paralyzing if a community says, ‘as soon as my anonymous billionaire shows up, count me in,’” said Chuck Wilbur, an expert on promise programs who speaks at the annual convention of promise programs, known as PromiseNet.

Because of its sustainability, New Haven Promise has piqued interest nationwide, Byrne said. In cities with a major university nearby, she notes, the New Haven Promise model can translate without major problems. She’s been working with education advocates in six cities nationwide, including San Francisco, New York and Cincinnati, to find ways to adapt the New Haven’s program to their city’s unique needs.

The New Haven Promise will not be a panacea, but for DeStefano, that’s OK.

Instead, it will be one step toward a culture that values a college education and good-paying jobs.

“I don’t think you build these programs that take you to the promised land of community well-being,” DeStefano said. “It’s a big deal, but I think it’s … one more important part of the puzzle.”

A part of the puzzle that has made Odia Kane’s life a whole lot easier.

Correction: September 16, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated the scope of “Pathway to Promise.”

Comments

  • mbmiller

    Thanks for the excellent article on the New Haven Promise. I’d like to offer a few points of clarification. First, the Kalamazoo Promise donors have spent $25 million over the first six years of the program — hardly the $200 million mentioned in the article — and many communities around the nation have created Promise programs without having any “anonymous billionaires” on hand. Second, I disagree with the implication of New Haven Promise leaders that students in Kalamazoo are rewarded even if they don’t work hard in school. While the Kalamazoo Promise makes scholarships available to every graduate of the school district who meets a minimum enrollment and and residency requirement, students must EARN their way into college. Admission to Michigan’s universities is competitive, and the mere fact of having a scholarship does not guarantee it. Students in Kalamazoo are working harder knowing that if they get good enough grades they will be able to attend the University of Michigan with their tuition fully covered. Less academically successful students have the option to attend one of the state’s 29 open-admission community colleges where they can gain certifications and skills that will fundamentally change their prospects in life. Universal eligibility for scholarships is what lies behind the positive cultural change in the Kalamazoo Public Schools as well as the engagement of the broader community, and is the defining feature of transformative programs such as the Kalamazoo Promise.

    Michelle Miller-Adams, Visiting Scholar, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research