Volunteers spread school reform message

At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, roughly 50 people, from toddlers to company CEOs, met in Hill Career Regional High School’s cafeteria for a key Elm City education reform initiative.

They met on the brisk October morning to walk the streets of Fair Haven and southwestern New Haven and inform local parents about two education initiatives in New Haven — Boost! and the New Haven Promise program.

Boost! and Promise are two components to the city’s ongoing school reform initiative, and canvassers said taking these programs directly to people’s front doors — in the form of flyers, brochures and volunteers — is an important step in creating a “college-going culture in New Haven,” city officials said.

“If the school sends a flyer home [with a student], who knows if it ever makes it out of the backpack,” said Betsy Yagla, the communications and research coordinator for New Haven Promise. She added that, to reach parents, “each month we went out and canvassed, and each month there was a different focus.”

Boost! is a program designed to promote student’s physical and behavioral well-being through initiatives like Squash Haven and Big Brothers Big Sisters, and New Haven Promise awards college tuition scholarships to New Haven public high school graduates who meet certain academic and disciplinary standards.

The first canvassing drive took place in August and targeted parents of kindergarten-aged children. With 219 volunteers knocking on about 1,500 doors, the community showed up in force — welcoming kindergarten parents to the school district while answering questions ranging from dress codes to bus schedules, Yagla said. And in a second canvassing event last month, nearly 80 volunteers reached 783 homes to inform locals about Promise and Parent University, a daylong series of workshops for parents about college.

On Saturday, Boost! and Promise were the focus of canvassing efforts. Now in its second year, Boost! is present at 11 participating schools in New Haven. While each school offers different programs, all of the programs, which include afterschool activities, tutors and clubs, are focused on healthy, after-class development.

“The reality is that many students come to school each day experiencing challenges in their outside-of-school lives,” said Betsy Pellegrino, Boost!’s director, “I feel that it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that that exists and embrace all students and families.”

The Boost! program added five additional participant schools this year, which Pellegrino said is a testament to the program’s success.

With the program’s growth in mind, volunteers split into teams of two to three canvassers wearing Promise and Boost! T-shirts and carrying maps, Spanish and English brochures and the morning’s Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

The chilly streets of Fair Haven proved less cozy than Hill Career Regional High School’s heated cafeteria. After several hours of canvassing and knocking on 18 doors, one of the canvassing groups, which consisted of William Ginsberg, the CEO of the Community Foundation, Shelia Brantley, the Comer facilitator, and Seth Ricardo Ortiz, a New Haven student, had only spoken to three families.

“I’m a little disappointed we didn’t see more families, but I think outreach is really important,” Ginsberg said.

Oma Amrit-Singh, a New Haven parent who was spoken to by this group of canvassers, said she was glad she opened her door to the volunteers. With a daughter in kindergarten at the Truman School, Amrit-Singh said she had not heard of Boost! or Promise before Saturday. She added Boost!’s afterschool programs immediately perked her interest because, as a nursing student with a working husband, she has difficulty watching her daughter immediately when school lets out. When Ginsberg told her about the potential for a full-ride college scholarship through Promise, she was so excited for her daughter she said she had “goosebumps.”

But there is still a large gap between a room of smiling volunteers and a successful college education. When asked if students at his school talk about Promise, Ortiz, a junior at The Sound School, said, “We know about it more than we talk about it.”

He explained that the majority of the kids at his school are not from New Haven, which makes them ineligible for the scholarship, and most students from the city “aren’t typically doing that well.”

But Ortiz, who spent his Saturday morning volunteering, is also a reminder that these programs can make a difference. Ortiz is a member of Squash Haven and wants to go to Yale when he graduates. He has already marked down out a Yale information session he plans to attend.

As the group of volunteers on Saturday morning demonstrated, the successes of these programs depends on support from the community. Ginsberg said this may be the right time for education reform in New Haven.

“I haven’t seen the community so together and so focused on a goal in the last three decades,” Ginsberg said.

Promise granted 132 scholarships to the class of 2012.

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