Among those working behind the scenes to send New Haven public school students to college for free were a handful of New Haven college students — namely, Yale undergrads.

Three weeks ago, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. announced the creation of the program, a Yale-funded initiative that hopes to launch a new era for the city by increasing access to college for the city’s public school students. But the project has been in the making for years, and according to some students, Yale undergraduates in the Roosevelt Institution, a campus activist group that researches policy issues, played a significant role in the program’s conception and development.

On March 10, 2006, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story about Kalamazoo Promise, the college tuition scholarship program in Kalamazoo, Michigan that has inspired several similar programs, including New Haven Promise. In an interview Sunday night, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. said that article was how he first learned of the program, though the idea of bringing it to New Haven was “filed away” for over a year.

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It was only when the mayor began formulating plans for his “School Change” campaign, a package of education reform proposals rolled out in July 2009, that New Haven Promise moved from being an idea to an official city priority.

The decision to pursue the Promise was in part informed by research done by Yale undergraduates at the Roosevelt Institute, said Samuel Brill ’10, a former co-chair of the Education Center at the Roosevelt Institute and former staff columnist for the News.

Brill said many Yale students deserve to be publicly recognized for their role in informing the city’s decision to pursue the program. He recalled a meeting in the winter of 2007-2008 at which he and Rachel Plattus ’09, then the Ward 1 alderwoman, discussed possibilities for the funding and structure of a New Haven Promise program with the mayor, his then-deputy chief of staff Emily Byrne and public schools superintendent Reginald Mayo. Plattus declined to comment.

Byrne, who is now the interim director of New Haven Promise, could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

Prior to the meeting, Brill said, students at Roosevelt conducted research into the costs of the program, as well as the experience of other communities with similar programs, such as Kalamazoo, Denver and Pittsburgh.

Sam Schoenburg ’11 and Bryan Kam ’12, the co-presidents of the Roosevelt Institute, were two such students; alongside other members of the Roosevelt Institute’s education and economic policy centers, the duo spent the past few years investigating how a program like Kalamazoo Promise would work in New Haven. The students worked together to create several documents for Byrne that outlined what students would have to do to receive a Promise scholarship; Kam said many of their suggestions for student requirements ended up in the final brochure describing the program.

“I think whichever way you cut it there are a lot of Yale undergraduates who were pivotal in making New Haven Promise a reality,” Brill said.

Asked about the role of the Roosevelt Institution in the conception of New Haven Promise, DeStefano did not offer an assessment.

“Many members of the community, including the Yale community, had input into the structure of what became New Haven Promise,” DeStefano said.

DeStefano said the idea of establishing a Promise program was considered alongside that of creating “baby bonds,” which would have put a small investment into a special trust account for individual children in the city’s schools. The accumulated money in each account could then be used for the pre-designated purpose of funding college tuition. Every public school student would be eligible for a bond.

“A lot of people were talking about baby bonds at the time [New Haven Promise was being considered],” DeStefano said. “The idea had some currency.”

But baby bonds were abandoned in favor of a scholarship program with private funding modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise.

In San Francisco, where mayor Gavin Newsom proposed the idea in his 2008 inaugural address, baby bonds are now a reality. With the help of Citibank, which has agreed to create the special accounts at no cost to students or families, kindergartners at 18 San Francisco public schools will be given taxpayer-funded investments of $50 to $100.

Newsom “poached” the idea from then-Senator Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article published in October. Clinton proposed a nationwide baby bonds program in September 2007, during her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

New Haven Promise, to which Yale has committed an annual contribution of $4 million, will fund college tuition for students in the city’s public schools who fulfill minimum academic and behavioral requirements.

New Haven Promise was announced Nov. 9 at a ceremony at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School on College Street.