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How to Keep a Promise

Graffitti outside High School in the Community. Photo by Jacque Feldman

The long mid-morning class period, which lasts from 10:05 to 11:35, can be tedious if you’re a student at Wilbur Cross, a public high school in New Haven. On a rainy day in early April, class was especially tedious for one student, whom I will call Shawn. He was working in the school library’s computer room with his junior English classmates, and he was supposed to be researching a presentation on “Battle Royal,” the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man.

It was a long period, the day was dreary, and Shawn hadn’t done the reading. Worse, his teacher, Michael Robin, was pushing him awfully hard, even though few others seemed to have done the reading either, and even though Shawn was one of five students in a class of eleven to have arrived in the classroom before the late bell rang. As the class period began, Robin explained that he wanted students to fill in gridded worksheets with information about the story’s author, quotations from the text, and their own analysis.

By 10:38, the students had settled in the library with their Web browsers open. A few minutes earlier, Robin’s goal for the class had dropped to recording and analyzing four quotations apiece, but even that much seemed insufferably boring to Shawn. He copied and pasted the story he was reading from a Web site to a Word document, fiddling with the font. By 11:22, Robin was begging Shawn to find just two quotations, but Shawn was still reluctant.

By 11:30, having tried every trick he could muster, having been called a racist by Shawn, who is black, Robin, who is white, settled on a pep talk. “You’re way too talented to just blow it off,” he told Shawn. Dropping to his knees beside Shawn’s chair, he asked Shawn to spend two minutes finding just one quotation. “Can you do that?”

In the end, Shawn threw up his hands, saying impassively to his friend beside him that he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. After class, his mood was markedly low, quiet. Shouldering his backpack, he told me he wasn’t on his A-game.

The sign outside Wilbur Cross High School. Photo by Jacque Feldman

While Shawn left the library as quickly as he could, I asked his classmates whether they had ever heard of something called New Haven Promise. Yes, they had. But they didn’t think that many people they knew would actually qualify for the scholarship program, which will begin this September to fund tuition at any in-state public university for graduates of New Haven’s high schools who meet its requirements for good behavior, academics, and residency in New Haven. Most people, they told me, weren’t focused on their grades—only on passing enough classes to graduate high school.

Students who spoke to me at four of New Haven’s high schools said some of their classmates find it hard to understand why they should work at all in high school when they can’t afford college anyway. “Some of these kids are slipping,” said Diana Hernandez-Degroat, a guidance counselor at High School in the Community. “The cost of college, some of them think it’s too expensive and they can’t go.” Those behind New Haven Promise plan to change this. They have stated a goal to halve New Haven’s high school dropout rate in five years by allowing all students to think of college as a possibility.

Any student who lives in New Haven and attends one of the city’s public schools is eligible to receive Promise funds, scaled according to how long they’ve studied in-district—and so long as they have an attendance rate of 90 percent, complete forty hours of community service, and maintain a 3.0 GPA. The program will be phased in gradually, with current high school seniors receiving 25 percent of tuition and current freshmen, 100 percent. (It will take into account current seniors’ senior-year GPA only and only the hours of community service they’ve completed since last fall.) The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven has taken on the program’s operation from a small office with a handful of staff and a busy whiteboard, and Yale University will guarantee the scholarship’s funding for four classes of students, for up to four million dollars each year, after which the program will be reviewed. The program aims not only to provide students with college funding, but also to revitalize the city’s economy.

The greatest hope for Promise is that it will create a college-going culture in New Haven’s schools, explained Emily Byrne, the program’s director. She believes that the program’s requirements will incentivize students to stay in school and strive for a B average. “We’re like the golden carrot for these kids,” she said.

A New Haven Promise sign hangs outside High School in the Community. Photo by Jacque Feldman

In the field of education, creating incentives can be tricky. Recently, Harvard economist Roland Fryer tested what happens when children are paid to learn. When Fryer’s team paid Dallas second graders two dollars for each book they read, students read many more books, and their reading comprehension scores increased measurably when tested. In New York and Chicago, however, where Fryer’s team told students they’d pay them for good grades or test scores, students didn’t do any better on standardized tests (though their grades did go up because they attended class more regularly).

“If students lack the structural resources or knowledge to convert effort to measurable achievement,” the study concluded, “or if the production function has important complementarities out of their control (effective teachers, engaged parents, or peer dynamics, e.g.) then incentives will have very little impact.”

If you’re a student at one of New Haven’s public high schools, you might be able to rise to the challenge set by New Haven Promise, but you might not. Even if earning Promise funds seems an attractive enough incentive to tug you through 13 years of schooling, you’ll still need to be helped along the way.

It was hard for me to tell what exactly made Shawn so resistant to work that April morning. Similarly, what it will take to create a true college-going culture in New Haven is a riddle—the one that those behind New Haven Promise hope to solve. As its first students to benefit from Promise prepare to go off to college this fall, New Haven is poised to test their answer.

“THIS WILL BE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ANNOUNCEMENT EVER MADE IN NEW HAVEN,” wrote Jessica Mayorga, then New Haven’s director of communications, in a press release before the program was announced last November.

“Who’s that district that people look to, to be a model? We think that it’s New Haven,” Byrne told me. “With this program, with Promise added to it, it becomes a beautiful example of what education reform can be.” She referred to School Change, the package of reforms rolled out by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. in February 2009. The mayor has repeatedly stated a goal to make New Haven the nation’s best urban school district—a tall order, given that the city’s public schools have long rested at the bottom of the achievement gap between rich and poor school districts in Connecticut, which has the widest such gap of any state. The state’s neighbors—New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—all won funds in 2010 from the federal Race to the Top initiative, but Connecticut was not even a finalist.

This is where the district stands. 89 percent of its tenth-graders scored below the goal level in Science on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test in 2009, with only 6 percent of school districts statewide scoring the same or worse. 83 percent of a representative group of New Haven students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared to 30 percent statewide. (The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches is often used as an indicator of economic need in a district.) New Haven’s schools have a dropout rate of 27.5 percent, meaning that of all the freshmen who matriculate at one of the city’s high schools, about a quarter won’t graduate.

It was as he was beginning his campaign for reelection to an unprecedented ninth term that DeStefano, who sent his own sons to Wilbur Cross, first described what’s become his signature education reform initiative. New Haven Promise is only one aspect of School Change, which also includes strategies for ranking schools into tiers, evaluating teachers and administrators, and engaging parents and members of the community in education reform. DeStefano’s administration succeeded in reaching a new, reform-minded labor contract with the teachers’ union in 2009—a victory when in other districts across the country, and famously in Washington, D.C., disagreement between teachers’ unions and cities has caused standstill in reform efforts.

“New Haven Promise, to me, could really only be a meaningful and optimal program if it occurred in the context of a set of investments, efforts, and energy,” DeStefano told me at his office. When the success of Promise is brought up for review in four years, its funders will also evaluate the success of School Change, knowing that one cannot succeed without the other.

For now, before anything has been reviewed, proponents of School Change and Promise are hopeful. “There’s no question that we are a national example right now,” said Garth Harries ’96, assistant superintendent for portfolio and performance management and a recent hire to New Haven. “In many ways, we think we are leading the state, and leading the country.”

This is not the first time in its history that the leaders of New Haven have considered their city a model for the nation. In the 1960s, Mayor Richard Lee wanted to rejuvenate a city that was stuck after the war with decreased industrial production and no place to put its newly swollen population, many of them blacks recently arrived from the South, seeking work. Lee’s projects to clear so-called slums and make the city more accessible by cars won New Haven more federal funds for urban renewal per capita than any other city—and a nickname, the “model city.” But as the twentieth century wore on, New Haven declined further. Mayor Lee’s highway, the Oak Street Connector, had sliced through preexisting communities and fragmented them. Manufacturing fell off nationally, doing away with jobs the city had once relied on. New Haven reached a nadir of crime and poverty from which it’s since only partially recovered. New Haven Promise and School Change can be seen as the latest in a long line of measures intended to remedy the mistakes of the city’s past.

Students in Peter Loffredo's class at ECA rehearse scripts they wrote about their schooling. Photo by Susannah Shattuck

On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoons, sunlight falls in long rectangles onto an array of music stands, two grand pianos, and a smooth hardwood floor in the recital room at the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street. The space comes alive when students spill in. Having completed the half-days they spend at various public high schools in the New Haven area, they assemble for meetings of a class called The Education Project. It’s the most recent in a string of classes on social justice theater taught at the Educational Center for the Arts, a half-day arts magnet school. The class, led by Peter Loffredo, a teacher at ECA for 14 years, teaches students to use hip-hop theater to examine education. Over the course of the semester, they create and perform a full-length play on the theme.

Loffredo has taught other classes on social justice theater, with themes ranging from hepatitis C to homelessness, but he’s never seen a topic provoke more passion in students than this one. “They’re more enthusiastic about this because it speaks to their immediate needs and issues that they’re facing on a daily basis,” he told me, leaning on one of the pianos. Loffredo is an energetic man with a booming voice, a graying beard, and a guffawing laugh. To his students, he is Peter. When they call him Mr. Loffredo, he likes to shout theatrically, “Did my father come in here?”

“They see the flaws in the structure,” Loffredo said, serious now as he told me what his students have said to him about uninspired teaching, shoddy classroom environments, and failing figures of authority. “They may not be able to do it in schools, but they want to call the system on depriving them. And they get frustrated when they can’t.”

Loffredo and ECA have provided a place where they can. When I visited in early spring, the class had compiled an initial draft of their play, and they were at work revising it. They began class by clustering their chairs in a circle and reading aloud an outline of the script they’d composed jointly. Bullet points represented scenes, groups of scenes, or monologues in the form of raps. Bolded phrases were to-dos for the session.

“c. Obama/Bush debate- Satire- Race to My Left Behind. Leah revise for comedy.

“a. Security profiling (my school is different)… Security Guard stops student”

“b. We become monsters. Paola shorten, cut to point: we used to fear imaginary monsters; now we become them (foreshadow “I don’t like my school” creatures).

“Fight with Teacher Taking Bets.”

One student, Esther Rose-Wilen, who goes to Wilbur Cross, explained to another student her idea behind a scene she’d written. “If they did treat us like humans, we would be more motivated and stay in school.” The student listening, Tavist Jones, a senior at High School in the Community, told her he understood and wouldn’t cut too much from her scene—he would just try to make that point “less vague.”

Tavist Jones, a student at ECA, rehearses a rap he wrote. Photo by Susannah Shattuck

Later, Jones stood behind a grand piano wrapped in a quilted cloth cover, quietly testing the lyrics of a rap he’d written for the play, a beat issuing steadily from his open computer, one hand poised alertly on the keyboard. Jones was one of several seniors I spoke with who are on track to be among the first to receive funds from New Haven Promise in a few months. Jones has been accepted to the University of Connecticut and other state schools, but he plans to attend DePaul University in Chicago if he is accepted. Like some of his peers, Jones does not think that 25 percent of in-state tuition will be enough to influence his college decision. Then again, his financial situation is special. As he is a ward of the state, his tuition will be paid for completely at in-state colleges and up to $21,000 at colleges out of state.

“I hate school,” he muttered offhandedly, showing me the rap, which described his experience taking the SAT in a Yale classroom. His face softened, and he added with irony, “I mean, life’s a giant test anyway, so you never really get out of school.”

“I think everyone here is excited that we get a chance to speak our minds,” he said. “This is our chance to rant about it. School is our life right now, and we don’t get much of a chance to talk about it. Whatever is good, we’re going to blow it up to the extreme, because there isn’t much good, we feel. Whatever’s bad, we’re going to kill it.”

Characters in the working version of The Education Project script include “bored, uncaring teacher,” “racially profiled black girl trying to escape special ed,” and “Megan, 13, cries a lot, disabled, has panic attacks.” Jones told me he hopes the Board of Education will be in the audience when he and his classmates perform their play—not so that the board members will be embarrassed, but so that “maybe if they feel what we say is good, they can bring it up” and bring about change.

“To me, Promise is very much a wealth-creation strategy,” Mayor DeStefano told me at his office, “and ultimately, a middle-class creation strategy.” Not only is the program a long-term investment in the economic potential of New Haven students, it could also stimulate property demand in the city.

It is based on an initiative launched five years ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which has since inspired similar programs in eighteen other cities cross-country. Unlike New Haven Promise, the Kalamazoo Promise stipulates no cutoff GPA. Students need only live in-district to receive the scholarship, which can be put toward vocational school as well as college. “In Kalamazoo, it’s about transforming the entire community, so we believe it should go to all students,” said Bob Jorth, director of Kalamazoo Promise.

The Kalamazoo Promise is intended to transform its host community mostly by encouraging parents of schoolchildren to move in. Census data showed an increase of five percent in the population of Kalamazoo County from 2000 to 2010, and an increase of 22 percent in enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools since the Promise program began in 2006. These initial data are hopeful, but it remains to be seen whether what worked in Kalamazoo will work in bigger, grittier New Haven.

DeStefano first read about Kalamazoo Promise in a Wall Street Journal article in 2007, though it had generated chatter in the city’s offices prior to that. When Byrne first considered pushing for a Promise program in 2008, she and her colleagues surveyed New Haven students who had dropped out of college and found that financial difficulty was often the reason they were no longer in school.

The proliferation of Promise programs also reflects a national paradigm shift in thinking about education reform. Rather than simply aiming to graduate students from high school, educators must instead focus on preparing them for college so they can succeed in an economy where a college degree matters more than ever. President Barack Obama has reminded the country that over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require some post-secondary education, and he awarded $125,000 of his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize award to College Summit, a nonprofit that seeks to bring curricula about post-secondary planning into public high schools.

At a Chubb Fellowship lecture at Yale shortly after New Haven Promise was announced, DeStefano described “a new way of life in New Haven where our children are born knowing that they can go to college and that it is expected that they go to college.”

That dream is spreading. “I haven’t seen this community react as enthusiastically to anything else I’ve seen in New Haven,” said Will Ginsberg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which administers New Haven Promise.

At the center of public enthusiasm, Ginsberg said, is Yale University’s agreement to underwrite the program. But it’s created a mild controversy among some Yale students, especially those who were participants in the Teacher Prep program that was cut by coincidence in the same week Promise was announced. “If this were an example of Yale caring about education, this is a very odd way to show their priorities,” said Brian Bills ’12. Bills heads the Ulysses S. Grant program, which places Yale students as teachers in New Haven during the summer, and he believes that the University should be using the money instead to fund research on education or professors who will turn more Yale students into teachers.

Yet the people I interviewed were less concerned with whether Yale decided to fund Promise with an eye toward its public image and more excited about the program’s potential impact on the students it will help. Yale’s investment in New Haven has grown since Yale President Richard Levin took office simultaneously with DeStefano—New Haven Promise being a sign of the times—and most are happy about the opportunity this has presented to New Haven’s youth, especially if the University decides to fund Promise past these first four graduating classes.

“There’s a lot of obstacles here,” Ginsberg added. “No one’s pretending school change will be easy.” These obstacles include the slowness of state-level education reform, according to Ginsberg; the difficulty of publicizing Promise among a community not entirely used to focusing on college, according to Byrne—and what to do when even a Promise worth thousands of dollars isn’t enough to get some students to earn B’s.

“The problem—why I didn’t make the requirements—is I got lazy,” said Jerell Emery, a senior at Wilbur Cross High School who hopes to earn a degree in sociology and become a social worker. He wants to go to college in-state, is waiting to hear from Westerm and Southern Connecticut State University, and says that Promise would be a great help to his family, but Emery’s 2.2 GPA will bar him from receiving Promise funds unless he is able to improve it before the end of the year.

We were sitting in the Career Center, an open room dotted with computer clusters, students gossiping about college acceptances, books titled School to Work, and UConn Huskies paraphernalia. It was the same day the Class of 2015 learned of its acceptance to Yale, but Emery was still unsure of his plans.

“I started being distracted too easy, to roam around the halls a little too much—I was going through things a little bit. It’s a phase a lot of people go through. But I think that if somebody were to really, like, stick on me, and really be in my hair a lot, then I would meet the requirements.” In the parlance of Fryer’s study, Emery lacked the tools necessary to convert his effort to achievement. Byrne and her team hope to create support systems and build on plans for systemic reform in order to make the requirements of New Haven Promise simple and accessible, but until that happens, they may have on their hands a case like that of Fryer’s students in New York and Chicago.

Emery transferred to Cross before his junior year in order to play on its basketball team. He remembered having trouble with the transition to Cross, which is one of two high schools ranked in the lowest tier, Tier III. Students at Cross who spoke to me were coolly aware of this classification, but they also had their own ways to describe the barriers that environment posed to their success. “In this school there’s a lot of peer pressure,” said Emery. “A lot of people make you try things, do things that you really don’t want to. A lot of kids in my classes are immature, and they talk over the teachers, and the teachers sometimes give up, and stop explaining the stuff, which I don’t like, because I want to learn and it affects my grade.”

Promise would serve as a good incentive for Emery, if only he could figure out how to earn it. “When people talk to me about college, I really listen, because I really want to go to college.” For his classmates who are slipping the fastest, however, Promise may not matter at all. “People who really don’t care about school don’t really care about going to college. When they hear about this New Haven Promise thing, they’re just like, ‘Whatever. It is what it is. I ain’t really looking forward to going to college.’”

Emery would not place himself in that group. “I know a lot of people that are trying to turn their whole lives around, trying to get their GPA up, and trying to really get this Promise thing, or a scholarship to go to college, but they can’t because their GPA was a little bit too low, and they kind of messed up their first two years of high school.” He told me that he’ll try to work as hard as he can to earn Promise funding before the school year is out—and that it will be the biggest challenge he’s ever faced.

Students at Cross face many challenges, most of which are rooted in poverty, said Michael Robin, a second-year teacher of the lowest track of English at Cross. “You can rattle off a laundry list. Drugs, and pregnancy, and gangs, and taking care of your siblings, and taking care of your children…”

“These may be challenges, but we cannot allow them to be excuses for underachievement,” Robin clarified in a subsequent e-mail. “Many of my highest achieving students have been through significant struggles in their lives.”

He estimated his classes have only 60 to 70 percent attendance on any given day. A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University labeled Cross a “dropout factory,” one of 14 in the state, because it found that only 50 percent of the students in the classes of 2004, 2005, and 2006 who entered Cross as freshmen graduated four years later. (New Haven Superintendent Dr. Reginald Mayo disputed the finding, saying that it didn’t account for students transferring out of Cross into different high schools. Even generously corrected for that, the dropout rate is quite high—about a quarter of students—and the city has been criticized for artificially inflating its schools’ reported graduation rates.)

“The problem with New Haven Promise,” Robin said, “is that the people who need this the most aren’t going to get this money. This money will go to good kids, don’t get me wrong…The kids who need this the most are the kids who are way below the poverty line, and the vast majority of those kids won’t see a dime of this money, because they won’t be able to meet the standards this program asks for.” He emphasized the importance of attracting good, new teachers to the district to help students reach their goals.

The people behind New Haven Promise are aware of the hurdles they face, and alongside the scholarship they’ve unveiled a detailed plan to support students in reaching the program’s requirements. They plan to begin talk of college with students and parents in the elementary schools, and flag each year students who have slipped below Promise standards. They plan to create a College Corps of community adults who will go door-to-door explaining what students need for college to parents who may not even have finished high school. They have partnered with College Summit to bring a pilot curriculum about applying to college into the classroom at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, and will extend this program to two more high schools next year.

Still, sometimes sorely needed changes have nothing to do with volunteers or curricula. A teacher at Cross who asked not to be named told me that the most effective recent change at the school was reducing its size. Over the past five years, the population of Cross has been reduced by about four hundred students transferring to recently opened magnet schools. Now, the hallways at Cross are less crowded, so there are fewer fights.

The teacher showed me a cell phone video taken by a student of a fight between two other students. One male student lunges at another, sending the pair spinning noisily against the orange, red, and yellow lockers. At least one more cell phone recording the fight is visible in the frame, and onlookers are shouting. Afterward, the teacher said, the attacked student suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and his attacker was expelled. “Our job in fights is just to ignore them,” the teacher told me. Instead, fights fall under the purview of security guards. “Kids are very used to it.”

If you’re a student at one of New Haven’s public schools, by this point in the school year, you may have given a bit of thought to what you’d like to do after you graduate. You might be among the 42 percent of seniors living in-district who have applied for funding from New Haven Promise. Or, your plans might not involve college at all. Brian Flanagan, a guidance counselor at Cross, was careful to say that he’s happy to point his students toward vocational schools or employment if that’s what is right for them. (Of New Haven Promise, he said, “Sure, they’ll pay for college, but you’ll have a lot of families where the student will just need to go to work after graduating school to support their family.”)

You might be one of the lucky ones. You might be like Donald Walker, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy who this September will become a first-generation college student, thanks in part to the funds he’ll receive from Promise. He wants to earn a degree in history and become a teacher. For now, he has a job at the Peabody Museum, pushing the fossil cart and explaining the museum’s exhibits to visitors. Walker described his 27- and 25-year-old brothers as “rebellious,” saying, “I saw from both my brothers’ mistakes.”

You might be like Victoria Ortiz, also a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, whose grandmother immigrated to New Haven from Puerto Rico, long ago. Ortiz feels deep loyalty to the city. “When you grow up in a community,” she told me, “you should want to give back.” She wants to study to become a nurse because after her hospitalization during a bout of sickness her freshman year, Ortiz felt indebted to her nurses’ kindness. Her mother, who is single, lost her job after taking off time to care for Ortiz, so New Haven Promise will be important in helping Ortiz to become a first-generation college student this fall.

You might be like Maria Arnold, a senior at High School in the Community who is also about to receive Promise funds and become another first-generation college student. Arnold has been accepted to Trinity College, where she hopes to engage in a genomics research program. After college, she wants to pursue research in cancer and diabetes—and has “since fifth grade,” she said. “Now, even more so. The guidance counselor’s daughter has leukemia, and my grandfather died from cancer.”

For her birthday, a friend gave Arnold a dorm-room sized fridge, and over the next few weeks, Arnold plans to tour Trinity and the other schools she’s been accepted to. She is quiet, with long brown hair, and is an enthusiastic reader. She recently read Hamlet with her AP English class and made it a personal project to commit to memory the prince’s most famous speech.

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”

Meanwhile, the staff of New Haven Promise has been touring the city in order to inform students and parents about what’s possible. At a meeting in the community room of Quinnipiac Terrace, a public housing project on the river in Fair Haven, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, Adriana Arreola, who works in the Promise office, said, “New Haven Promise is a scholarship and support program. We’re not about just giving out money.”

The handful of people assembled included a few members of the community who started an after-school homework club for the neighborhood because many of the children there live with grandparents who may not speak English or be able to help them. They were quiet, attentive, nodding. They took the glossy pamphlets—“School Change Begins With Me,” “Making the Promise of College a Reality”—and asked only how they could best help get the word out to parents and students.

“We have at least five seniors I can think of. Very bright,” said Demetria McMillian, one of the residents. But none of them were there yet. “We wish they would have come out tonight. We were really trying to connect them with you.”

“It’s like expanding their world to show them the choice,” said Mary Anne Moran, another resident, of New Haven Promise.

Finally, after several minutes, one of the parents whom McMillian was awaiting arrived, his teenage daughter in tow. “That’s my sunshine,” he said proudly, in accented English, as she took a pamphlet. She had to get going to choir rehearsal soon, he said, but in the meantime, he wanted her to hear about New Haven Promise. There was, after all, the chance she’d be among the first few generations of scholarship recipients. And then there was the chance she would not, the possibility that she’d end up someplace besides college, the cards stacked against her by history and circumstance.

For the time being, however, Arreola switched to Spanish as she, the father, and the student opened the door to an adjacent room, where they’d talk over the details.

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