Bessy Reyna/Special to CTLatinoNews.com
Walking into an auditorium full of seventh and eighth graders on a beautiful sunny and warm April Saturday morning, I expected the students to match my mood—wanting to be outdoors enjoying our first real spring day. But to my surprise, these students immediately wanted to engage the writer and immigrant before them and thoughts of spring evaporated in the flurry of questions with which these amazing students peppered me.
These inquisitive and lively students attend the Steppingstone Academy Hartford, a 26-month preparatory program provided by Hartford Youth Scholars (HYS) for highly motivated middle school students, nominated by their teachers and recruited from 6th graders at elementary and middle schools.
The goal of Steppingstone Academy Hartford is to create a community of motivated, compassionate, responsible, and hard working Hartford students committed to becoming competitive and deserving applicants for admission into, and success at, some of the top independent, magnet and charter high schools in the state.
Their mission is to reinforce, enrich and expand Scholars’ education through an ambitious experience – one that is not only personally rewarding, intellectually challenging, and academically stimulating, but that also helps Scholars develop the leadership skills and ethical sensibilities necessary for their success.
It became clear to me in those first few moments that the Hartford Youth Scholars program is fulfilling its mission and then some. My reason for my visit to these students’ classroom was to provide them with an opportunity to meet a Latina poet and journalist, and to share my experience with education and to discuss and explain the research conducted by me in the writing of my poem “Freedom Journey in Four Voices” and to show the video of the performance at the Yale Art Gallery, as part of the programs for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven.
The students were friendly, and after I was introduced by Garth Adams, the Program Dean, I sat on a table –instead of on the chair—greeted them with “Buenos Dias” and shared my immigrant story. Their attention and questions showed an interest and maturity that I have rarely seen in such young students.
I should have known that these students were going to be different. After all, how many young students are willing to spend their Saturdays going to school? Or have the discipline to commit to a 10-year program that would guide them through high school and college? These students are learning to enjoy their education, their quest for knowledge, because they all have one goal in mind: getting ready to go to, and to graduate from, college.
The students I met that day are part of a program which was started in 2005 by then Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, and a number of businessmen and community leaders. The original idea was to provide scholarships to students who could not otherwise afford to go to independent schools. However, both the program organizers and the staff soon realized that financial aid alone was not sufficient to meet the students’ needs, and in 2006, they decided to partner with the Steppingstone Foundation in Boston and to extend the program. The program which originally was to last 14-months of academic enrichment with an 8th grade entry point, grew to a more comprehensive 26-month program beginning the summer after 6th grade. Scholars who enroll in the program now commit to three summers of intense academic study, and two full academic years of after-school and Saturday classes. Fulfilling this commitment provides the Scholars with the academic foundation, skills and attitude to be successful in high school and college.
In their mission statement the program promises to work not only with the students, but also with their families. It is a rigorous educational environment, sort of boot-camp for learning, followed by individualized support and mentoring throughout high school and college, as well as preparation for the SAT.
The results so far have far exceeded expectations. The graduation rate from High School is 100% and 87% of Scholars attend a 4 year college. The high level of academic achievement of these Scholars earned them acceptance to some of the most prestigious independent schools in the state and country. Thus far, and in all, Steppingstone Scholars have accessed over $10M in financial aid dollars at over 20 different independent schools. The many colleges and Universities these Scholars are attending are too numerous to list, but a few names gives us a general idea of their level of academic achievements: Central and Southern Connecticut State Universities, Colgate, Florida A & M, Harvard, Rutgers University, Smith College and many others.
There are now 215 students in the program. Most of them have the dream to be the first one in their family to graduate from college. They are proud to challenge themselves with hard work and dedication to obtain the education which they thought would be out of reach.
During my meeting with the seventh and eighth graders, I spoke about the importance of reading newspapers from other countries to have an idea of what’s happening in the world and how the world perceives the USA. One of the students raised his hand and told me “I watch the BBC for that reason.” That student certainly made my day, as well as all the others who asked me so many questions about my experiences as a student (How come you were a C student in High School and still graduated Magna Cum Laude from MT Holyoke College?) They were very curious to know how I turned my life around. or how come I came to this country without having ever studied in English. They laughed when I narrated my embarrassment because of an experience with a very strict professor who returned my paper in psychology class and told me “You have to put all your eggs in one basket.” What? I had no idea what he was talking about. But, the students from HYS will know what that means, because, unlike me they will have individual support to break through any of their insecurities. Aside from mentors, they will also have role-models from others in the program now graduating from college and who were just like them when they first entered the program in seventh grade.
Ever since I met with the students that Saturday I have been telling everyone about them and about how impressed I’m with the work this non-profit organization with a small staff and many volunteers has been doing to change the future of so many of Hartford’s families. The program survives on donations and grants.
Please visit their website: www.hartfordyouthscholars.org. The program is having an Open House on June 30th, from 8am to 11am at Trinity College. I will be there and hope you will be too. Call 860-297-5112 for more information.