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Wegmans offers matching grant for to save Hillside Work-Scholarship

The dropout prevention program that started as a way of funneling more minority employees into Wegmans’ upscale, suburban grocery stores may double its footprint in Buffalo’s public schools within three years. But it needs to raise the money to do it.

To that end, CEO Danny Wegman said Wednesday that his family’s charitable foundation will match any dollars the Buffalo School District puts toward the program.

The Hillside Work-Scholarship program works with more than 3,500 youths in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Prince George’s County, Md., and currently serves 180 students in South Park and Bennett high schools, two of the district’s poorest performers.

Organizers said the students who join the program are often failing underachievers living in poverty who are partnered with youth advocates in each school. Those advocates give the students the support they need to stay in school, develop work skills, gain employment and, most importantly, graduate.

But at South Park High School, which received state grant money to support its turnaround model, the program is reaching the end of its three-year agreement. That puts the school at risk of losing the program if more money isn’t raised.

“That’s our No. 1 priority,” said Rod Green, local director for the work-scholarship program. “That’s our flagship site. That’s where we’re trying to prove our impact.”

Graduation is the main goal, but the program also gives those with maturity, good attendance and a C or better average in key subjects the chance to enroll in a job readiness program, with the likelihood of a job waiting for them at the end of that process.

Many of those kids wind up working for Wegmans, though the program also has other corporate partners. Wegman said his family discovered that work can help academic performance, not hinder it, by setting a bar of high expectations in the real world.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive to how most people think,” Wegman said in a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board.

He said he was more than skeptical of the program when his father came up with it in the 1980s as a way of bringing in and keeping qualified minority employees in his largely suburban Rochester grocery stores.

“I thought my dad was nuts,” he said.

But the program has proved very successful, he said. Now, the Wegmans Family Charitable Foundation will contribute matching dollars up to $900,000 for every dollar the Buffalo schools raise over the next three years to keep and grow the program here.

In Rochester, 65 percent of all students who participate in the program graduate, compared with just under 50 percent throughout the whole district, Green said. Students who complete the program’s job readiness training have a 98 percent graduation rate.

South Park was the first Buffalo school to partner with Hillside in March 2011, pairing 60 students in danger of flunking and dropping out with full-time youth advocates. In 2011-12, the district doubled the program at South Park and expanded it to Bennett High School, where it serves 60 students through its partnership with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood.

The goal is to double the number of students in the Hillside Work-Scholarship program in Buffalo within three years and eventually add Emerson High School as a third school partner, Green said.