Buffalo district comes up with funding to match Wegman’s challenge grant

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Funding for an important mentoring program in the Buffalo School District appears to be back on track.

News 4 Investigates reported in February that the district was hesitating on finding money for the program that targets students at-risk of dropping out of high school.

Danny Wegman had pledged $1 million for the program in April 2013 if the district could match it. The district has yet to use $840,000.

But now the district is now ready to commit.

It’s called Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, and most agree it does a lot of good for students who are struggling with grades, attendance and suspensions, among other problems.

District officials now tell News 4 Investigates that they have found a way to fund and expand the program.

South Park High graduated about 40 Hillside seniors last week.

Roddy Torres is among them.

“It’s a win-win scenario. You get a diploma. You get a job, and you get to go to college,” Torres said.

Torres says he’s focused on attending Niagara County Community and becoming an X-ray technician. He credits Hillside with making a huge difference in guiding him to a high school diploma.

“If Hillside wasn’t here, and you know, it probably would have took a harder time for me to let it sink in.”

Saying that “we have to dream big,” interim Buffalo Schools Superintendent Will Keresztes says the district is committed to funding the Hillside-Work Scholarship Connection program over the next two school years and beyond.

“We know it works for our kids. We know our kids want this. We know parents fully support it. We know that Hillside and the Wegmans Foundation are great partners that the district must embrace,” Keresztes told News 4.

He says the district is committing $420,000 for the 2014-15 school year, and the same amount the following year. That amount will be matched by the Wegmans Charitable Family Foundation, which put $1 million on the table in April 2013.

“This summer we will be catching up to that commitment,” Keresztes explained.

In response to the district’s commitment, Danny Wegman of the Wegmans Charitable Family Foundation said he was thrilled with the district’s decision to fund the Hillside program.

“This marks a new beginning for a long and successful partnership,” Wegman said in written statement.

What’s more, the Hillside program will be expanded at South Park High and initiated at Emerson and Burgard. That funding commitment will serve 270 students at the three high schools for the next two years.

Hillside is also currently supporting 90 additional students at Bennett High School.

The district is also exploring ways to create a 10-year funding support plan in order to stabilize the Hillside program. Keresztes says the 10-year support plan will not only stabilize the present program, but will also expand and bring the program to other schools.

“With partners like Wegmans, Hillside and Say Yes in the district, we have the opportunity to touch the lives of every student in meaningful ways that will benefit them now and far into the future,” Keresztes said.

Hillside pairs students with a professional youth advocate through graduation and up to two years post-high school. Youth advocates serve as mentors and role models, and work with students to address their individual needs.

Vincent Rodolph is a Hillside success story. Once at-risk of dropping out of school, Rodolph was on stage at South Park High last week to get his diploma.

“Honestly, I think I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be graduating,” Rodolph told News 4.

He credits Hillside with keeping him on the right path.

“I think the program basically allowed me to be able to accomplish my goals when it comes to applying myself to school and being able to accomplish good grades.”

South Park Principal Theresa Schuta says Hillside is a lifeline to the school, the students and their families.

“We know that it evens the playing field for a lot of our kids. And our goal is at South Park to get every students a diploma whatever resources we have to put in,” Schuta said.

The Hillside program is about mentoring students all the way to graduation day, and providing an opportunity for part-time work experience and job skills to help prepare students for life after graduation.

“Many of the students in our program have very, very poor attendance rates. They’re failing two or more core subjects. They’re behind a grade or two for their age,” according to Lamont Williams, Executive Director of Hillside Buffalo Region.

“So that when they come to us it really takes a lot of effort getting them turned around and we’ve been more than able to get those folks turned around,” he said.

The Hillside funding proposal will go to the Board of Education for consideration later this month. Keresztes says the board is excited about moving forward with the partnership.

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