After her brother was killed by gunfire, and with no parents to turn to for help, Patricia Melton beat the odds and became a first-generation college graduate with a degree from Yale. Now she’s returning to New Haven to help kids not just get to college, but stick it out, too, the way she did.
Melton, who’s 52, takes over on Aug. 15 as the new executive director of New Haven Promise, a college scholarship program funded by Yale and the Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. The program, announced in November 2010, offers up to a free ride at in-state colleges and universities to city kids who attend New Haven Public Schools, perform community service, keep up a B average in school and stay out of trouble.
Melton succeeds Promise’s first director, Emily Byrne, a mayoral aide who left the job after a year to take a policy position with state education chief Stefan Pryor.
Melton will earn a $120,000 salary. She comes to the job with 18 years of experience in the education field, with a focus on helping kids make it to and through college—and a powerful story to tell. As part of her job, she’ll help Promise deliver on a promise to not only pay for kids’ tuition, but to track them through college and make sure they don’t give up.
Melton showed up Monday to her new office at Promise headquarters on Lincoln Way, a brick-lined alley off of Audubon Street. It was her third day at her new desk, though she doesn’t officially start work until next month. She recounted her remarkable journey from a kid who was not headed for college, to Yale grad, to a professional who has spent a decade helping others follow her path.
In her childhood, Melton said, “college was not on the radar.” She grew up on welfare in the housing projects of Cleveland. She was the sixth of seven children. Her dad was unemployed, in and out of jail, out of the picture. Her mom, who dropped out of high school to start a family, died in a car crash when Melton was 12 years old. Melton’s older sister took over the household. The family bounced around so much that by the time Melton got to the 9th grade, she had attended eight different schools, sometimes three schools in a single academic year.
Melton was raised by her sister in Cleveland for a couple of years before a turn of fate granted her access to a world of privilege.
After her 9th grade year in Cleveland, she was tapped to take part in A Better Chance, a program that sent talented urban kids to private or boarding schools. Melton found herself on a plane to the East Coast to start sophomore year at Middlesex School, a boarding high school in Concord, Mass.
Unlike in Cleveland, Melton found herself hit with “hours and hours of homework.” She stuck with it. At the urging of a high school college adviser, she set her sights on the Ivy League. She defied her own expectations and got into every college she applied to. She headed to Yale as a recruit for the lacrosse and field hockey teams.
Freshman year at Yale was “very difficult,” Melton recalled. An aspiring doctor at the time, she set an ambitious schedule for herself, including playing on the varsity field hockey team, learning French, and studying chemistry as part of the pre-med track. At the end of the year, she headed back home, feeling defeated.
“I wasn’t sure that college was for me,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t make it” to graduation.
She didn’t return her sophomore year. She stayed home and worked as a clerk at Standard Oil. As her temporary job stretched out into a year-long one, “it became more crystal clear to me why I needed my education,” she recalled. After a year and a half, she returned to Yale.
After gearing up for a second year in college, Melton was hit by an unexpected blow: On the day before class registration, she found out her 30-year-old brother Claude was killed by gunfire.
“It was tough,” she said. She was very close to her brother, and now far from her family. She decided to stick it out and stay at Yale.
A natural athlete, she thrived in sports. She got accepted as a walk-on to the varsity track team, training under a former Olympian. She found a new major, African-American studies.
Money ranked high among many obstacles that Melton faced at school.
Without her parents, Melton found herself alone in paying the bills. She learned, the hard way, about financial aid terms like “bursar hold.”
That’s when the college won’t let you register for classes because you’re behind in tuition payments. Melton heard that term a lot during college, particularly when she returned from summers and had not made the summer contribution that students on financial aid were expected to pay toward tuition. Melton had worked in the summers, she said, but she spent that money paying the rent and putting food on her plate.
Melton worked at Yale’s financial aid office to pay off her debt. When she was short on money to pay for books and rent, she learned another term—“emergency loan.”
“A lot of what I went through, it gives me an edge when working with students,” Melton said. “It gives me a passion” to help other disadvantaged students make it through.
Kids today may not have the same story, Melton said, but “there are some basic issues that have not changed.”
Melton graduated from Yale in December 1983 with $10,000 in debt—about $24,000 in today’s dollars. She worked odd jobs to pay down her debt as a “starving amateur athlete,” devoting her days to running track. She became a nationally ranked track star, making it as far as the U.S. Olympic trials.
She retired from competitive running in 1988 and moved to Seattle to work for the Goodwill Games. Her career in education took off when she got involved with a Ford Foundation-funded parent organizing drive in Seattle’s public school system and ended up on a team that created a new school called The African-American Academy.
From there, Melton flew East, where she served as chief fundraiser for Boston’s first charter high school.
Melton now has a master’s in education; she is working on her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. She has spent the last decade devoted to college access, particularly through an “early college” model. That term refers to schools that blend high school with college, allowing students to earn their high school diplomas as well as an associate degree in four years.
Melton focused on helping colleges and school districts in Indiana and Ohio set up early-college high schools. She most recently served as assistant dean of instruction at Vincennes University in Indianapolis. In a past job as a consultant at the Knowledge Foundation, Melton helped create six small high schools in Ohio aimed at helping students become the first generation in their families to go to college, according to her online resume. She also served as chief academic officer at the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, Indiana’s third-largest public school district.
Melton plans to bring all that experience to her new post, as she guides New Haven’s nascent scholarship program into its second year.
Promise’s 2nd Half
Promise kicked off last year with a pared-down pilot, giving 115 students up to a 25 percent scholarship. In full implementation, students will get up to full tuition at in-state public colleges and universities.
Of the 115 students who started out with scholarships last year, 105 stayed in school after winter break, while 10 suspended their studies mid-year, according to Promise spokeswoman Betsy Yagla.
At its launch, Promise pledged not just to pay students’ bills, but to track them and help them overcome the obstacles that prompt so many black and Latino and urban kids to drop out of college. Only half of New Haven Public School students enroll in a second year of college within two years of finishing from high school, according to the school district. As part of its reform effort, the district aims to raise that number to 75 percent for the current 9th grade class.
Besides handing out money, Promise has made an effort to help families prepare for college—such as parent classes and financial aid primers—but is still figuring out how to best connect to Promise “scholars” once they’re on campus.
As a prerequisite to getting the financial aid, students agree to allow Promise to track them after high school to ensure they keep up the requisite 2.5 grade point average in college. Promise has direct access to their colleges to keep tabs on their grades. Yagla said Promise is also in touch by email with students: some respond and others don’t.
Promise is defining its relationship with the college kids it funds, Yagla said: It doesn’t want to duplicate supports provided on-campus, but it aims to do more than just “letting them go and saying good luck.”
Melton said she aims to look to social media to “create a community” for Promise students, in part so they can support each other as they go through college. The program also aims to host an “alumni” event in August to connect Promise students who are currently in college.
At Promise, Melton will oversee two full-time staffers: Yagla and Adriana Arreola, who has been serving as interim director after Byrne left for Hartford. Yale University has pledged up to $4 million per year to fund the program; the Community Foundation pays for the staff. Melton pledged she and her team will work to track Promise students’ lives
“We want to know: Are they persisting? Are they graduating? And are they staying in New Haven?”
That last question is key, Melton said, to Promise’s goal of being an economic generator.
“We want them to finish” college, and “we want them to transition successfully” to careers in New Haven, she said.
As students progress, “we hope to have some presence at every point in that continuum,” she said.
Melton cobbled her own way through college by doing odd campus jobs, as well as earning an odd five or ten bucks by participating in psych experiments. She said she made it through with a strong network of support, from her sisters, high school teachers, fellow students, and the parents of some of her classmates at Middlesex.
Asked about the 10 Promise students who suspended their studies mid-year, she said Promise needs to look into the reasons they made that decision—so kids can pick back up, as she did, and persist to graduation.
“We’re all invested in making sure kids get to college,” she said. Promise must “ensure they get through,” too.