New Haven Promise Reaches Out to Younger Children in Effort to Build a College-Going Culture

Feb 4, 2014

Student Arianna Taft with Patricia Melton, executive director of New Haven Promise.
Credit Diane Orson / WNPR

A recently-released report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that as college tuition costs soared between 2007 and 2012, demand for federal student loans increased more than 300 percent.

"We know we've got to keep our grades up. We stay on each other. We try to encourage each other."
Arianna Taft

Several U.S. cities have established scholarship programs meant to motivate lower-income students to stay in school, and see a pathway to college. In New Haven, qualified students may be eligible for full tuition at a Connecticut public college or university through a program called New Haven Promise.

This year’s high school graduates will be the fourth class of Promise scholars. To qualify for the scholarship, students must have a 3.0 GPA, no expulsions, and a high attendance record. The program is funded by Yale University, with support from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Yale New Haven Hospital, and Wells Fargo. 

WNPR's Diane Orson spoke recently with student Arianna Taft, a junior at Hill Regional Career High School -- who’s hoping she’ll qualify for a Promise scholarship when she graduates -- and with Patricia Melton, Executive Director  of New Haven Promise. Melton said that in order to develop a culture in the city where lower-income kids aspire to higher education, the program is reaching out to younger children and their families.

Patricia Melton: Particularly as we get to the fifth, and sixth, and seventh grade, where students are starting to truly internalize their separateness, and their identities, and what they want to be when they grow up, we need to have a more visible process around their declaration, and what they can concretely do. We've decided that the pledge form, which normally students would complete in the ninth grade, we will have students do in the sixth grade.

Diane Orson: Can you talk to me about the pledge form?

Melton: The pledge form says, I will keep my grades up; I will come to school, and good attendance is important; and I will be a good citizen. That's a very definitive, concrete commitment that our young middle-schoolers can make. We can build programming off of that.

Arianna Taft: I'm 16. I'm a junior at Hill Regional Career High School.

When did you get interested in Promise?

Taft: My sister was [in] the first year, I believe, to get it. I was like, oh, I gotta get that. So I make sure that my grades are right.

Where is your sister?

Taft: My sister goes to UConn.

Is this something that you talk about with your friends?

Taft: Definitely. Because since we all -- well, my friends -- live in New Haven, we know we've got to keep our grades up. We stay on each other. We try to encourage each other: you did that homework? What'd you get on your test?, to make sure our grades are up to par.

Patricia, you were saying that you've begun to recognize that you need to tailor the messaging to the grade level, and the developmental level, of the students and the families. Can you talk a little bit about how you would speak to an elementary school family, versus how you'd speak to a middle or high school family?

Melton: Absolutely. There was a study that Data Haven did, and one of the real interesting discoveries, or metrics, tracks absenteeism. What it discovered is that in grades K through three, there was a very high level of absenteeism -- almost ten percent. One of the requirements for New Haven Promise is that students must have a 90 percent attendance rate. So here is something, as we knock on the door, that we can discuss: how important it is to have your child come to school. What does it mean to have 90 percent attendance? It means that you want to make sure your child gets into the habit of going to school. That child shouldn't be missing any more than 18 days a year. 

Where you sit now, Patricia, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing the students for Promise?

Melton: The challenges that face our students, I would have to say, center around making that transition to college. Some are more prepared than others, for a variety of reasons. Our partners are working very hard -- the school district, the teachers -- to increase the rigor and the preparation our students face, so that when they do transition, they will be prepared.