Category: Education Matters

Getting “Nearlies” Over the Line to Become Promise Scholars

Each year, dozens of graduates of Hartford’s neighborhood, magnet and charter high schools just barely miss becoming Hartford Promise Scholars and the scholarship funds that distinction bestows.

So, last winter, Hartford Promise teamed up with the Connecticut Bar Association and the ALL IN! Coalition to identify kids who are on the cusp of eligibility as “Nearlies” and to establish the “Nearlies” action team. In the half-year pilot program, Hartford schools identified 32 juniors and seniors from three high schools who nearly qualified but fell slightly below the Hartford Promise cut off. As Hartford Promise scholars, Hartford residents who earn at least a 3.0 GPA and have at least a 93 percent cumulative attendance record receive up to $20,000 over four years if they attend an accredited, non-profit college or university.

To help move more students into eligibility, the “Nearlies” students were offered the option of working with a mentor who would help them improve their grades and attendance. After learning about what mentoring would entail, 30 students agreed to participate.

By the end of the pilot program, five of the 15 seniors had qualified as Hartford Promise Scholars, including two girls who had had babies their junior year. The 15 juniors’ grades and attendance remained stable, but none crossed the threshold to become Hartford Promise Scholars yet. Mentors will continue to work with these students in this, their senior year.

“It’s hard work. Many of these kids, their circumstances can be very tough,” says Richard Sugarman, president of Hartford Promise. “Even trying to help them move small amounts can be very tough.”

Many of these students hold jobs, care for younger siblings and face obstacles their suburban peers can’t even imagine. Most are the first in their families to attend college.

Tajh Hamilton, a senior at Pathways Academy of Technology & Design, says he was already a hard worker who cared about his grades, but his mentor provided him valuable feedback on papers. He appreciated her encouragement, especially when he started losing steam toward the end of the school year, he says.

His mentor, Denise V. Zamore, “told me to keep striving,” says Tajh, who is one of 10 children. His parents can’t help him with his schoolwork, he says.  “I have a hard time with English. She served as my editor.”

Zamore, senior associate general council with United Healthcare, says she’s happy to “pay it forward” and mentor a Hartford student, since mentors were crucial to her success.

At the end of last year, after Tajh told her he had missed a deadline handing in a paper, Zamore chided him and suggested that he finish the work and send it to her that night for feedback. That night, they worked on it virtually and he submitted it the next day, only a day late.

Even seniors who didn’t become Hartford Promise Scholars gained from the experience of working with a mentor, Sugarman says. One senior works nearly 40 hours a week at a retail store, where he is valued and has become a supervisor. His work schedule hurt his school attendance, but he gained so much confidence from his job that his mentor didn’t want to discourage him from working, Sugarman says. The student formed a strong bond with his mentor and they could talk openly, he says. The mentor invited his mentee to shadow him at work, visited the student’s family and workplace and attended the student’s graduation.

“He’s going to college and he’s going to be great,” Sugarman says. “It’s not that when they miss they’re losers. What they do have is these additional relationships with a caring adult.”

In the pilot program, 15 mentors were screened, trained and given a mentor playbook with guidelines and suggestions. Most mentors met every other week with two mentees and stayed in touch with them between meetings through phone calls, texts and emails. Mentees signed a contract agreeing to work with a mentor and allow their mentor to access their grades and attendance records.

“The contact had to be regular, dependable and frequent, so they could establish a relationship of trust and comfort, with a focus on grades and attendance,” Sugarman says. Several mentors invited their mentees to observe them at their jobs and took them to see the film, Black Panther.

With mentors’ ability to communicate with mentees’ teachers and guidance counselors, action team members hoped that problems could be addressed before report cards came out. Mentors tried to help mentees strategize back-up plans if life events interfered with their ability to study and attend school.

Mid-way through the program, mentors participated in a review to discuss challenges and triumphs and compare notes on obstacles and opportunities for improvement.

Mentors’ didn’t see students’ grades until after report cards came out, so action team members are working with school officials to ensure that mentors see to the most up-to-date student records, says Kyle Smith, associate director of admission at Trinity College and an action team member.

Zamore says she plans to meet with Tajh and his guidance counselor this month to discuss communication and college plans. This year, with access to students’ grades as they’re posted, she says, she’ll be able to provide targeted guidance to help Tajh get his GPA to 3.0 or better.

The first year fell short of its goal of getting at least 50 percent of “Nearlies” over the line to qualify as Promise Scholars, but it was a learning process.

“We were inventing and creating as the program was going on,” Smith says. “Now we have the opportunity to start at the beginning of the school year, taking advantage of hindsight.”

Some mentors and mentees said they would have preferred to work one-on-one, so organizers plan to expand the pool of mentors. They’d also like to build a college visit into the program and offer a workshop for students and their mentors on financial aid.

The ALL IN! Coalition provided seed funding and recruited cross-sector leaders to support the “Nearlies” launch, including Teach for America, the Governor’s Prevention Partnership and the City of Hartford’s Community Engagement Office.  The “Nearlies” Action Team is now a full-fledged program of the Hartford Promise, run by its staff, and is expected to begin in October and expand from three to four high schools this year. While the Connecticut Bar Association and Trinity College provided the 15 mentors in the pilot phase, other professional organizations such as actuaries, public health workers and employees of Travelers and The Hartford have volunteered to deliver mentors from their ranks. Local education students from surrounding universities may also become mentors this year.

With the addition of about 25 “Nearlies” from Hartford Public High School in what will be the program’s first full year, Sugarman is optimistic.

“There are many really talented kids who are focused, disciplined, resilient and brilliant. Our scholarship, generally, is one of the few scholarships that are available to refugees and undocumented students,” says Sugarman. “If we’re able to go forward and be successful at getting hundreds of Hartford students to be successful in college, the impact on our community is transformative. Our workforce needs talented kids from diverse backgrounds.”

Zamore says she brought her 9-year-old son, Alex, to Black Eyed Sally’s with Tajh, because she sees her mentee as a role model for her son, telling Alex, “This is what a good young man acts like.”

Despite a time commitment of less than 10 hours a month, she says, she gains as much from the relationship as she gives.

The mentees appreciate that “somebody is invested in me, just for me,” says Zamore, who helped organize the mentorship program in her director role on the Connecticut Bar Foundation’s board.  Mentors of all races are welcome. “They don’t care if you’re purple. What resonates with them is an educated professional adult wants to spend time with them and wants them to succeed.” To learn more or volunteer as a mentor, contact Hartford Promise at 860-956-5310 or [email protected]


Achieve Hartford!: Reborn as a Startup

After working for 10 years to close the achievement gap between Hartford Public Schools’ students and their peers in surrounding districts, Achieve Hartford! has reorganized and shifted its approach away from advocacy and driving accountability and towards solving problems. While retaining its goal to increase high school and college graduation rates, Achieve Hartford! has taken its stakeholder engagement role to a whole new level and also constrained our focus for the next three years on the piece of the talent pipeline that spans high school to post-secondary degree completion.

The slimmed-down organization will continue to pull together leaders from business, higher education, nonprofits, philanthropy and government to strengthen public education, but with an even stronger focus on workforce and economic development.

Hartford is a small city, plentiful in talent, leadership, expertise and people committed to preparing today’s children for college and the local workforce. Hartford doesn’t have a resource problem; it has a coordination problem, says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director, and that’s where the new Achieve Hartford! is directing our efforts: “Going right to the intersection of all the different players working on college and career readiness with all the different agendas and personalities and bringing them together,” he says.

“I think of the new Achieve Hartford! as a startup, not just in spirit, but I also think in our approach to selling our business model, our theory of change to every leader we come into contact with. We are making a bet on the desire and ability of private sector leaders to step up and into roles outside their everyday job to take real ownership over solutions in ways Hartford hasn’t seen before. We know that this might not work, but when we look at everything else that’s in play, and compared to what we were trying to do, we feel like we have a much higher chance of success than any other efforts, including traditional approaches, that are siloed or beholden to a lack of public resources.”

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote a great piece about Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he argues that if anyone wants real change, it’s got to be from the bottom up or it won’t happen, Holzer says.

Coordinating private sector leaders to work together will “either be done by us or it won’t get done, period. For us, the private sector is the bedrock of our community; the corporate and philanthropic sectors continues to support all of the programming and invest directly into the public sector too; the higher education communities continue to educate everyone here; and the nonprofits themselves, have been here forever providing services and getting to know the community.

“Organizing the private sector, to me, is the best untapped opportunity we have to really find solutions to the problems that Hartford is facing, without the politics. Without the worry of changes in leadership from one mayor or one governor or one board or one council or one superintendent to another,” Holzer says. And now more than ever, corporate and higher education incentives are aligned to the bold goals we have set for high school graduation, college matriculation and college completion.  Their bottom lines are heavily impacted right now, and even more so in the near future.

Tim Goodwin

To reflect this realignment towards organizing the private sector, Achieve Hartford! eliminated three staff positions – deputy director, development director and operations manager. After our previous lead organizer Daiana moved back to Texas, we hired Tim Goodwin, a former Weaver High School principal and community leader, as lead organizer.

“There are limitations that urban public schools have to navigate,” Goodwin says. “Achieve Hartford! is working with community-based organizations and the corporate entities to provide support that will allow the entire city to overcome those challenges. So instead of one urban school district taking on these challenges alone, we are one entire group working to overcome those challenges”

We’re working with nonprofits that are already feeling the pressure to be more strategic and collaborative than they’ve been in the past. Increasingly, foundations favor giving to nonprofits that can demonstrate collaboration with others. Their incentives are aligned as well.

Goodwin’s role is to support the two major coalitions listed below and specifically recruit and coach local private sector talent to work toward improving educational outcomes for Hartford students:

  • All IN! – a public-private-business coalition with a goal-oriented agenda to support Hartford youth on their pathway to future success;
  • Weaver 2019 – a committed coalition of people from education, business, philanthropy and nonprofits working together to create a 21st century, high-quality learning environment.

Goodwin is already supporting the Weaver High School redesign recommendation process, which involves preparing the final review, so the recommendations can be presented in one plan document to the superintendent and the board of education. He is also helping bring partners together to implement the approved recommendations.

Those interested in working toward these initiatives need not be educators, Goodwin says.

“If you are someone who believes in Weaver High School or progressive reforms for urban education, there’s probably going to be a way to plug you in,” he says.

Those both inside and outside of education say the challenges facing the Hartford schools can’t be solved in a vacuum.

“They’re problems that require a whole set of expertises and you have to find people from everywhere,” Holzer says. “So, if I do need an educator, then guess what, there’s an educator working on that, but the educator is no longer expected to solve problems that relate to resource constraints or politics or good process or program evaluation or communicating something. There is room for everyone, but not from a sense of, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ but from a sense of ‘We desperately need different expertises to come around one table to solve any of these problems.’

Hartford needs people like Ethan Reid, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, who recently sat on Weaver’s school culture and climate work group after years of serving on High School Inc.’s industry advisory board. Reid, who grew up in Hartford and attended its public schools, joined that group because he was interested in culture and climate and could specifically bring expertise around how to drive good process, how to ask the right questions around these changes that need to be made, Holzer says.

“He’s just a really smart guy from the corporate sector who wants to bring a sense of accountability and sophistication to a work group,” he adds, “with a real commitment to Hartford kids.”

Achieve Hartford! is also changing how we focus our communications efforts. With Ed Matters, we have shifted away from informing and updating readers on how the school district is performing, says Nyesha McCauley, story teller & communications lead. We are no longer reporting on school board meetings or other District developments.

“This is aligned to our new model where our focus is now on private sector partnerships,” she says. “Achieve Hartford! organizes, coaches and inspires individuals to solve pressing problems in education and change how leaders work together. Our articles will focus on this approach to improving educational outcomes,” McCauley says. “We hope our stories that highlight the impact of our new approach will inspire and motivate individuals who want to help to find ways to connect with each other and commit to getting involved.”

Ed Matters readers can expect frequent updates on the progress made within the All IN! coalition and Weaver 2019. We plan to highlight people committed to doing this work, including providing one-on-one personal narrative videos highlighting education champions telling their stories. We will share stories from other communities where cross-sector coalitions are impacting and improving educational outcomes for urban students.

McCauley adds, “We want our readers to know and understand what’s possible when private sector leaders come together with each other — and with public sector leaders to solve problems.”


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