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A grocer (Wegman) and a banker (Wilmers) team up to help kids

A grocer and a banker got to talking one day about ways to provide educational opportunities for students enrolled in Buffalo schools.

But it wasn’t just any grocer and banker. It was Danny Wegman, chief executive of Wegmans Food Markets, and Robert G. Wilmers, CEO and chairman of M&T Bank, and they wanted a plan that would build upon their already-extensive efforts to deter dropouts and to provide early childhood education.

After a few more conversations, they decided to combine efforts, donate $1 million each and establish a new non-profit called 23 Connections – named for the 23rd letter of the alphabet that begins their last names. 23 Connections will continue the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation’s scholarship program for high school students and enable M&T to open a second Children’s Academy for preschoolers living in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Children’s Academy has been a key part of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, the public-private initiative M&T spearheaded to improve schools and the surrounding neighborhood in a 97-block area in the northeast part of the city. The M&T initiative has posted academic gains at one of the schools there but scores still lag at another.

Similarly, the Wegman Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection – which started in Buffalo at South Park High School seven years ago – has had some success deterring drop outs. In most cases, Hillside students had higher graduation rates than their peers, as high as 96 percent in one instance, by Hillside’s tally. However, more traditional ways of assessing graduation rates yield less rosy, but still positive, results.

With 23 Connections, Wegman and Wilmers hope to expand those efforts while also attracting other organizations from the business community to come onboard.

“The better our education program is, the better Buffalo will do as a city. Investing in the future of our community begins with making sure our children have all the resources needed to be successful,” Wilmers said. “Helping city students prepare for college or a career improves the quality of life for so many of our citizens and also contributes to the local workforce and economy. I believe this begins at the early childhood education level and can be augmented with innovative private-sector programs such as the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection.”

Wegman called healthy children and strong families “the foundation of thriving communities.”

“The Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection provides students with extra support and local job opportunities, and the program has a proven track record of improving graduation rates and preparing students for college and career,” he said.

Helping kids graduate

The Wegman Hillside initiative starts in ninth grade to help students stay in school and graduate.

It combines adult mentoring with job training and part-time work experience for students with poor attendance, who are failing two or more core subjects, are over-aged for their grade level or have major behavioral problems. A trained Hillside youth advocate in the school works closely with the students on a daily basis to prepare them for college or jobs and to help them develop work skills, such as how to dress and speak for a job interview or how to prepare a resume.

The program was launched in Buffalo at South Park and expanded to Bennett High School. In 2014, Emerson and Burgard high schools came onboard and, since then, Math Science Technology Preparatory and International Prep have been added. Currently, 14 Hillside youth advocates serve 420 Buffalo students, and organizers are looking to grow to 600 kids this school year.

Lead teacher Jordan Beamer interacts with pre-schoolers from left, Cheyenne Stroudt, 4, and Elijah Henderson, 4, on the playground at the Children's Academy, 3149 Bailey Ave. in Buffalo on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Lead teacher Jordan Beamer interacts with pre-schoolers from left, Cheyenne Stroudt, 4, and Elijah Henderson, 4, on the playground at the Children's Academy in Buffalo on Oct. 12. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)


Only the South Park and Bennett programs have been around long enough to track graduation rates. Hillside officials measured the number of students who stayed with the program since ninth grade against the number of those Hillside students who graduated in four years. They point to graduation rates ranging from 92 percent to 96 percent at the two schools for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 graduating classes.

Hillside also measured the number of kids who graduated in four years whether or not they had stayed with the program. Those figures showed graduation rates of 70 percent, 79 percent and 84 percent at South Park from 2013 through 2015.

Those figures matter, Hillside officials say, because students still benefited even if they left the program early.

“So there’s some value the kids experience in our program,” said Sarah Armignacco, director of educational initiatives for Wegmans.

A Buffalo News analysis of the total number of Hillside students who started the program in ninth grade and stayed with it until they graduated in four years tells a somewhat different story. In those cases, graduation rates for Hillside students were higher for most classes than the overall graduation rates at the two schools, but much lower than in the Hillside calculations.

For instance, in 2015, Hillside kids at Bennett posted a graduation rate that was 17.5 percentage points higher than school’s overall rate of 52 percent.

But at South Park, the Hillside graduation rate – 55.6 percent – was lower than the school’s overall rate of 62 percent for the same year. Still, the data show that the 2014 Hillside graduation rate of 59 percent was higher than the school’s 57 percent.

The Wegman Family Charitable Foundation provided $1 million for Buffalo’s Hillside program back in 2013 and challenged the school district to match the amount over three years. The district met the challenge and contributed an additional $50,000. This school year, the district has earmarked $420,000 for Hillside programs.

But the funding stream is drying up, and 23 Connections is one way to replenish funds for current students and new ones, said Hillside officials. The program also is supported by the Hillside Children’s Foundation, which is responsible for private fundraising.

Starting early

M&T Bank has been one of the Buffalo district’s most high-profile corporate supporters for more than 20 years, starting at Westminster Community School in 1993, eventually helping it convert to a successful charter school.

Then in 2011, M&T launched Buffalo Promise Neighborhood to operate Westminster and later partnered with the district’s Highgate Heights Elementary School and Bennett High – though it later dropped Bennett when the district submitted plans to close and relaunch the school without any input from the nonprofit group.

In addition to educational supports, Promise Neighborhood provides neighborhood resources and family and social services to students and families in a one-square-mile area around University Heights just south of the University at Buffalo South Campus. The area has 12,000 residents, including 3,000 children under 18, and has high rates of poverty, crime and teen pregnancy.

Promise Neighborhood’s effect has been mixed. Since it launched in 2011, state assessments for third- through eighth-grade students in math and reading show some gains at Westminster. But scores at Highgate Heights still lag behind other city schools.

But Promise Neighborhood’s Children’s Academy – a prekindergarten program that also provides services for parents – is bursting at the seams.

It’s too early to determine how the Academy kids fared on formal state assessments because its inaugural class just entered third grade this year, and state assessments will not be administered until spring. Meanwhile, the Promise Neighborhood kids were not tracked on another assessment of early literacy skills the district administers starting in kindergarten, said David Chamberlain, an M&T senior vice president and chief executive officer for Promise Neighborhood.

“We have not received data from the district that would enable us to compare data from Early Childhood Center students to students at the district-wide level,” he said.

But Chamberlain pointed out that children attending the academy are at or above proficiency levels for their age.

“Students entering kindergarten from the Children’s Academy are better prepared to socialize with their peers, are more comfortable in a classroom setting and perform better on standardized assessments such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, a nationally recognized assessment of a child’s vocabulary,” Chamberlain said.

M&T opened the academy to start preparing kids as young as 6 weeks old and up to 5 years old to succeed academically.

For parents, there are full-time coaches on-site who offer workshops on financial education, job readiness and career development as well as parenting skills and strategies. Family dinners are held monthly with guest speakers and child-focused activities, and free-on-site tax preparation is also available.

The one-story building on Amherst Street at Bailey Avenue started out three years ago serving 80 youngsters up to 5 years old. That increased to 130 kids this school year with a waiting list of 108, Chamberlain said.

“The reason for a second Children’s Academy ... is because it is important to a child’s future that they receive the supports necessary so they are socially, emotionally and academically prepared to succeed,” said Chamberlain, who also will sit on the board of directors for 23 Connections.

Promise Neighborhood leaders are scouting sites, and have not yet determined if the new academy will be constructed or housed in an existing building.


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