Wegmans grant goes unspent in Buffalo schools

 

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) -

A program that exists to help more Buffalo school students graduate is in jeopardy because the Buffalo Public School District may not find a way to match a $1 million grant by the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation.

The program, the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, is a mentoring program in the Buffalo Public schools designed to help students stay in school and graduate.

South Park High School Senior Alex Montalvo said, “They pretty much helped me a lot with my grades, and they got me out of some tight spots.”

South Park graduate Corey Edwards who is now in his first year at Medaille College told News 4, “I would recommend this to anybody who was in my situation.”

Hillside currently enrolls 210 students in Buffalo; 120 at South Park which started three years ago and 90 at Bennett High School which began two years ago.

At South Park, 20 of 21 seniors in the program graduated last year.

South Park Principal Theresa Schuta is convinced the program has made a difference to the graduation rate at that school.

“What that meant for our graduation rate, that had us achieve a 7-point gain, and we were close to 59.8 percent, I believe. And if we didn’t have Hillside we would have been at 52 percent,” Schuta explained.

“We are changing lives essentially. The work that we’re doing in the program has been extremely effective with the youth. We are increasing the graduation rate for the City of Buffalo,” said Lamont Williams, regional executive director for Hillside.

South Park’s graduation rates are impressive considering that within the Buffalo Public School District, less than half of all students graduate, according to NY state data for August, 2012.  Seven of Buffalo’s 18 high schools graduated less than 50 percent of their students.

Tomorrow Allen, a Hillside Youth Advocate who assists struggling students, says her job is to connect with guidance counselors, teachers and parents, and to make sure the kids are getting what they need to succeed.

“We can do what maybe the teachers and administrative staff, and even the parents, don’t have time to do.  And we can spend that time with them individually to make sure that all of their needs are met,” she says.

About a year ago, Danny Wegman, Chairman and CEO of Wegmans, came to South Park High School and laid down a challenge to the Buffalo School District.

Wegman said he would donate $1 million from the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation over three years if the district could match it.

Requiring matching funds is meant to ensure the district will fully support the Hillside program.

“By always putting our children first, Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, in partnership with dedicated employers who provide meaningful jobs, is able to graduate 93 percent of its students,” Wegman said last April.

His vision is that the new money would expand the program beyond South Park and Bennett to 930 Buffalo students at several other high schools.

For Hillside students like Alex Montalvo and Corey Edwards the program is more than mentoring and tutoring; they both also have part-time jobs with Wegmans thanks to the partnership.

Mike Keating, WNY Division Manager for Wegmans, says many former Hillside students from Rochester and Syracuse have worked their way up to key positions in the company.

“That’s the real win. That is what we would like to see as an outcome from this program,” he says.

However, the program at South Park is in danger of ending with this school year.

Buffalo School District Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown would not go on-camera with News 4 to talk about the future of the Hillside program.

Instead, in a statement, she said that while she knows the program leads to higher graduation rates the district faces a nearly “$50 million deficit” and “will consider every option” as it relates to students’ needs.

State Assemblyman Michael Kearns says the district needs to find a way to match Wegman’s grant, and keep Hillside going in Buffalo.

“I think it’s a huge mistake by the Buffalo public schools,” he says.  “The program is successful. The money is on the table. We cannot afford to leave that money on the table when we’re looking to do and promote public-private partnerships.”

Barbara Huebsh is a Youth Advocate at South Park and arranges for Hillside students to get tutoring when their grades slip.

When these kids see their grades go up it means a great deal for their self-esteem, she said, “It makes them feel like I can do this. And I can go to college. And I can move on. And I can graduate.”

In the end, getting students like Alex Montalvo, who plans to attend college after he graduates in June, to graduate is what Hillside is all about.

Principal Theresa Schuta says she can’t imagine that the program would end at South Park.

“I wouldn’t even think it’s an option,” Schuta told News 4. “I don’t think it’s an option that we can turn our back on these kids.”

Danny Wegman hopes the schools find a way to match the funds he’s offered so the Hillside program can continue.

“Our offer still stands,” Wegman said in a statement to News 4. “We have matched $105,000 to date, and it is my hope that Buffalo Public Schools will take advantage of what remains.”

Assemblyman Michael Kearns says if the money is left on the table with no match it sends a “very bad” message to other donors who talk to each other.

“You have to find a way to find the money because this program is too important,” Kearns says.

Of the 210 Buffalo students currently enrolled in the program, 32 are working part-time. While Wegmans started the program and employs many of the students, the jobs partnership has expanded to include Tops and Delta Sonic.

The prospect of getting a part-time job is a key incentive that keeps many of the students working on their academics, officials say.

The program began in 1987 in Rochester as an idea of Robert B. Wegman, Danny Wegman’s father when he was challenged to do something to help minority students.

It has expanded to Syracuse and Prince George’s, Maryland and serves close to 4,000 youths considered at risk of dropping out of high school.

During its 27 years, the program has helped 3,175 students graduate.

Over the last three years, its graduation rate for students who joined the program as ninth graders has been at least 60 percent.

 

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