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Little-known program helps students in school, on job

It may be the most promising school reform most people never heard of. While the potential of Say Yes to Education and Buffalo Promise Neighborhood spur excitement about the future of the city’s troubled schools, one program already is making a difference.

“I think I probably would have dropped out, honestly,” said South Park High School senior Karima Marrero.

She’s talking about her future before enrolling in the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection piloted locally at South Park and Bennett high schools. Today, the 17-year-old is on track to graduate after boosting grades that used to be in the 60s. She’s also earning money and learning soft skills while working at Wegmans, the corporate supporter that started the program 26 years ago in Rochester.

There’s nothing magical about the initiative. The key is its intensive intervention using “youth advocates,” trained adults stationed in the schools full time to work one-on-one with kids from homes with little of an educational culture. About 90 percent live in poverty, and a third are “over-aged and under-credited” in school, said Roderick Green, Hillside’s executive director for strategic expansion.

The program launched at South Park in 2010, said Principal Theresa Schuta, a former Southside Elementary principal familiar with families who needed help. The help comes from youth advocates like Tomorrow Allen, who sees about 33 students a week, reviewing academic performance contracts, meeting teachers, enlisting parental support and working with kids on such challenges as attitude and how to communicate.

Senior Rickeya Williams enrolled after deciding “I couldn’t do it by myself.” After daily tutoring, she passed three Regents exams in January. Now the 19-year-old is on track to be the first in her family to graduate. Both she and Karima are eyeing Erie Community College, thanks to the program.

But what also distinguishes Hillside is that it puts kids to work. Last year, 31 South Park enrollees – including Karima and Williams – got jobs at Wegmans and other corporate supporters after 25 hours of training. They’re helping support their families and contributing $175,000 to the economy through their wages, Green said, while learning the skills employers demand.

“How to dress. How to speak,” and how to prepare a resume, Karima recalled. Those are the kinds of social mazes some kids, simply because of lack of exposure, never learn to navigate. Instead of blaming parents who never learned, either, the Work-Scholarship Connection reaches out to them.

“I have never talked to a parent who said, ‘I want my kid to drop out of high school,’ ” said Green, who pegs the program’s cost at about $3,300 per student, a pittance compared with the price of letting kids fall by the wayside.

One measure of the program’s value is the agencies that fund it, such as the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, whose president, Michael Weiner, calls its comprehensive approach “very promising.” A major funder is the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, where an official pointed to a 2004 study of Rochester’s program by the Center for Governmental Research that found its students graduated at twice the rate of comparable students.

As it complements other efforts, Hillside’s intensive program proves there are no easy solutions. But it also proves something else: There are solutions.