As an immigrant farm worker’s son launches his college dream, the city will be tracking whether he makes it to graduation.
Ivan Gusman (pictured) is one of 110 New Haven students who will receive the first round of scholarships from New Haven Promise, a new program designed to motivate kids to go to college and help pay their way.
Ivan, who just graduated from James Hillhouse High School, re-donned his cap and gown Thursday morning for a formal acceptance ceremony with fellow Promise recipients. Dozens of recent high school graduates and their families gathered in the heavily air-conditioned Sprague Hall at Yale University.
Officials on the stage told the students this is just the beginning: Over the next five years, Promise will track whether they stay in college and go on to get jobs.
Mayor John DeStefano said the aim is to boost the New Haven Public Schools’ record on producing kids who go on to get college degrees. As of the latest count, only 17 percent of NHPS grads who enrolled in college finished within four years, he said.
Ivan is starting with high hopes. He aims to take classes at Gateway Community College in the fall, then transfer to Quinnipiac University after two years. His end goal is to become a physical therapist.
That’s a level of education his parents never reached.
“I never had the opportunity” to go to college, said his mom, Maria Concepción Ortega (pictured). “I was always working, working.” As an immigrant from Mexico, she spent years doing hard labor in California farms, picking cotton, almonds and strawberries.
Beaming with pride on Thursday, she said she’ll do all she can to help Ivan, the youngest of her five kids, make it through college.
“I want all the best for him,” she said.
New Haven Promise, funded by Yale University and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, pays up to 100 percent of tuition at in-state colleges and universities for every New Haven resident in the city public school system who maintains good grades, attendance and behavior.
To qualify, students have to keep up a 3.0 GPA and 90 percent attendance, perform 10 hours of community service, and maintain a good discipline record.
Ivan said he wasn’t sure he would make the cut: “I didn’t think I would get the grades.” He struggled in intermediate algebra, but pulled through with a C, which kept his GPA on target for the scholarship. And he logged a few hours of service at the Atwater Senior Center, the American Red Cross and LEAP.
“It feels good,” he said, standing among fellow Promise recipients in an array of caps and gowns Thursday.
In this pilot year, Promise will pay up to 25 percent of students’ tuition at in-state public universities, and up to $625 per year at private, non-profit colleges or universities in the state. As the program is scaled up, participating students will get up to a full ride at public universities, and up to $2,500 at private ones.
Students Thursday received a T-shirt of the college they plan to attend—a mix of two- and four-year institutions.
In its inaugural year, 372 New Haven public school seniors applied for the scholarship, 151 qualified, and 110 chose to accept, according to Promise spokeswoman Betsy Yagla. She said the students who chose not to accept it are heading out of state for college, or joined the military. Those who failed to qualify did so for poor grades, for skipping too many days of school, or for failing to do their community service hours.
Those who did qualify got words of advice from the adults on stage not to give up.
“This is not a high-five for what you have already done,” said William Ginsberg, CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. “This is about your future.”
Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, echoed that sentiment in a statement delivered by video: “Please know your goal is not to go to college; your goal is to graduate from college.”
To keep the scholarship, students have to keep up a 2.5 grade point average while in school. Promise will be tracking kids’ grades, whether they make it through to graduation, and eventually, whether they land jobs afterward, according to Yagla.
Mayor DeStefano, who launched Promise as part of a larger effort to improve city schools, said post-secondary tracking will prove to be a critical measure of success.
“A key measure of high school performance ought to be persistence and graduation rates in college,” DeStefano said.
In the past, the only information New Haven Public Schools gathered about its graduates was how many matriculated in college, DeStefano said. As part of the school change effort, the district started getting more data on how far those graduates make it in college.
So far, the district only has data for the students who graduated high school in 2004. Of those who enrolled in college, only 17 percent graduated from college in four years, according to DeStefano.
As much as student test scores, DeStefano said, “that’s the number we want to drive up.”
DeStefano said that in the long term, New Haven needs to find a way to find better supports for students in college.
Ivan said he hasn’t found out yet how much his Promise grant will be, but he knows he will have to work part-time to pay for classes.
He lives on Dickerman Street with his mom and another brother. He said his end goal is to get a good-paying job and and give back to those who helped get him to college.
“I want to support my family,” he said.