About 200 education and economic development experts from across the country gathered in the Yale University Art Gallery on Wednesday evening to celebrate the first night of PromiseNet 2014 — a three-day national education conference.

PromiseNet brings together members of the national “promise network,” which consists of organizations that provide in-state college scholarships to local public school students, as well as representatives from other similar education and community organizations around the country. The conference includes workshops and discussion sessions designed to give the organizations a platform to discuss challenges and successes in their respective cities. This year’s event, the sixth of its kind, is hosted by New Haven Promise. The event kicked off on Wednesday evening with speeches from NHP Executive Director Patricia Melton and Mayor Toni Harp.

Harp emphasized that having the conference in New Haven would help further NHP’s efforts to expand college access.

“I think the fact we’ve been able to hold a national conference will actually give us a lift,” Harp said. She added that New Haven’s position as this year’s host city “really solidifies the work we’ve been doing.”

NHP, like other “promise” groups around the country, seeks to address two problems at once: college readiness amongst local students and the economic future of the city they live in. This year marks the fourth and final pilot year for NHP, which was founded in 2010 with the help of former Mayor John DeStefano Jr., former superintendent of schools Reginald Mayo and then-University president Richard Levin.

“We’re a young program. And [PromiseNet is] an opportunity for the city to get to know us on a deeper level,” Melton said. “A lot of people think of us just as scholarship money, but we do a lot of work. It’s success, retention, supporting our scholars all the way through [college], and then helping them achieve their dream career.”

New Haven Promise gives every New Haven public school student a full-tuition scholarship to any in-state public college or a stipend of $2,000 to any Connecticut private college as long as they meet certain criteria: the student must be a resident of New Haven and earn a minimum grade point average of 3.0 throughout high school and 2.5 in college. In addition, the student must have a 90 percent or higher attendance rate, complete 40 hours of community service before high school graduation, and not be expelled. According to Melton, approximately 200 students used the scholarship last year.

“New Haven Promise is really productive about going into New Haven Public Schools and distributing material about the requirements,” said Lily Engbith ’17, one of the 17 New Haven Promise Scholars currently attending Yale.

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Wells Fargo are all sizeable financial contributors to the program alongside Yale University, according to Melton.

The national Promise organization started in 2008 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as the product of a long-time dialogue between local donors and the Kalamazoo school system. Janice Brown, one of the original founders of the Promise network of cities, said the transformation of PromiseNet from the school district she was superintendent of in Kalamazoo to a national organization has been “an unanticipated and unbelievable phenomenon.”

“It just changed the whole national conversation about post-secondary education,” said Bob Jorth, executive administrator of the Kalamazoo Promise.

According to Brown, New Haven is one of the only cities in the country that has such a strong donor presence from a local university. At the inception of the program in 2010, Levin said that the University planned only to commit to four years of funding, after which the program’s renewal would be contingent upon whether it accomplished its mission. He also said in 2010 that given the program’s continuation, the University would expect to contribute $4 million annually after seven years.

University President Peter Salovey has expressed his commitment to supporting the program.

“It creates in the New Haven community, and in many families living throughout New Haven, a conversation about college as an option and an aspiration, as something that could be affordable,” he said in an interview with the News before the conference.

Salovey is scheduled to deliver a keynote address Thursday at the Omni Hotel Ballroom.


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