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Scholar Power: School choice empowers diligent students

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

• Hartford Youth Scholars: Boosting Studious Students + Valley Schools


This article first appeared as the cover story in the September edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication


By Matthew Broderick and Bruce Deckert

Special to Today Magazine


BY HER OWN admission, Victoria Black was not always a model student.


“In my younger years, I was not always the most motivated,” she says. But one of her elementary school teachers at Hartford’s Jumoke Academy saw her potential and recommended that she apply to Hartford Youth Scholars, a nonprofit that provides a pathway of accelerated learning, social enrichment and mentor support with the goal of increasing high school and college graduation rates among Hartford students.


A graduate of Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Black is now a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She recognizes that Hartford Youth Scholars (HYS) has helped her develop better study habits, improve her time management skills and navigate diverse environments.


Farmington Valley schools, both public and private, have played an important role in the success of HYS students like Black — and she is not alone.


Over the past 15 years, more than 99% of Hartford Youth Scholars graduated from high school. By comparison, the graduation rate for Hartford’s public high schools in 2021 was 72%, according to district data.


“Our goal at Hartford Youth Scholars is to reinforce, enrich and expand our scholars’ education — and to provide meaningful opportunities, comprehensive resources and accountability that teaches and encourages them to become mature and industrious adolescents,” says executive director Anthony Byers.


Each year, about 30 rising 7th-graders are accepted to participate in The Collegiate Academy, the first component of the HYS experience that comprises a decade-long journey to college graduation. HYS gives scholars academic support for 10 or more years, starting the summer before they enter 7th grade and seeing them through college graduation.


The Collegiate Academy features two main ingredients — a summer enrichment program and a required Saturday academic session throughout the school year.


The five-week summer program takes place at Trinity College in Hartford, before HYS students enter 7th, 8th and 9th grade.


The Saturday class sessions are taught by HYS Collegiate Academy teachers who support HYS students throughout their middle-school tenure to provide a strong foundation for high-school success.


Consistent attendance, exemplary behavior and completed assignments are requirements, designed to help a cohort of middle-school scholars prepare for and excel in high school and college. HYS teachers have no direct connection with the various middle schools that the scholars attend.


“These are our own teachers who we hire and recruit to work at the academy,” says Byers, who underscores that the Saturday education class is an enrichment program that goes beyond homework help or tutoring.


This school year, the HYS faculty consists of six teachers. The required Saturday sessions run from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

A half-dozen Hartford Youth Scholars celebrate their academic success — Timothy Bell, Olivia Cooper, Jasmine Morris, Chyler Bastarache, Azoya Clarke and Zakai Evans

San De Min is a sophomore at Wesleyan University and an Ethel Walker graduate. She attended middle school at Hartford’s Grace Academy and became a Hartford Youth Scholar in 2014.


Her family immigrated from Thailand in 2009. Growing up in an impoverished Hartford neighborhood with parents who had not graduated from high school, Min says her love of learning and her parents’ focus on her education attracted her to HYS.


“The coursework was definitely more accelerated,” says Min, “and the expectation was to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone.”


In addition to the middle- and high-school curriculum in math, science, literature, history and the arts, university course content taught by college professors is part of the Hartford Youth Scholars program. HYS also offers students cultural experiences like trips to theaters, museums and sporting events as well as creative workshops and outdoor activities in Greater Hartford.


The HYS staff helps the scholars, most of whom are students of color, navigate challenging school environments. Due to economic and social disparities, they often face micro-aggression and cultural misunderstandings in affluent suburban schools where the student populations are predominantly white.


“We aim to provide a holistic approach to the education of our scholars,” says Byers. “Whether our scholars are at Hartford High or Simsbury High or Westminster School, our aim is to help them not only academically but also socially and emotionally. Our support isn’t just about preparing for academic success— we want to give them a toolkit to be self-advocates once they get on campus.”


For students of color in a mostly white environment, Byers says it is vital to cultivate a sense of belonging.

HYS scholar Blair Farquharson-Williams is evidently enjoying her studies on a summer’s day at the 2023 Collegiate Academy at Trinity College

“It can be easy for our scholars to feel they don’t belong there,” he says, “and that makes it harder to ask a question for fear that it’s something you should already know. … We have a lot of conversations around leadership and helping students find their voice — and once they get on campus the hope is they won’t need us as much to come and step in. We’re teaching self-advocacy skills, and they can still reach out to us when needed.”


Born and raised in Hartford, Byers is a 2007 UConn graduate who majored in economics, with a focus on the socioeconomics of race and gender. He is also a graduate of The Master’s School in West Simsbury. In 2015, he received a Hartford Business Journal 40 Under 40 Award.


Among more than 235 current HYS participants, 54% attend public, magnet or charter schools, while 46% attend private schools.


HYS students have attended public schools in four of the five Farmington Valley towns, according to Byers — Avon, Canton, Farmington and Simsbury. Today Magazine focuses on community news that matters statewide and nationwide in those four towns plus Granby.

HYS students have also attended numerous private schools in the Valley and Greater Hartford, including Avon Old Farms, Master’s, Farmington-based Miss Porter’s, and Simsbury-based Ethel Walker and Westminster.


The HYS website lists more than 50 partner high schools, accompanied by this robust statement: “Hartford Youth Scholars who complete The Collegiate Academy program matriculate into some of the most prestigious high schools in the country.”


Elaine White, an HYS trustee and head of school at Westminster since 2021, says Westminster has enrolled a Hartford Youth Scholar every year for the past 15 years, providing full scholarships as part of the $6 million in financial aid the school provides annually. White reports that about 25% of her institution’s 430 students are persons of color, which she believes is an important part of the school’s educational objective.


“We continue to build diversity and make sure we are providing students with skills and experiences that will make them good citizens in a diverse and multicultural world,” she says.


For acceptance to a private high school, HYS students and their families must go through the same application and financial aid process as every other student — HYS doesn’t give scholarships to scholars but instead offers guidance throughout the application process. For enrollment in a public school, HYS students go through the state’s Open Choice program — see the brief sidebar article below for details.

Hartford Youth Scholars staff — executive director Anthony Byers, in a blue suit, is standing in the middle

Research has shown that low-income children who have more cross-class interaction are more likely to rise out of poverty, due in part to access to networks of higher-income earners. Data from Harvard-based Opportunity Insights — a nonpartisan research and policy institute focused on improving economic opportunity — indicates that economic connectedness is a strong predictor of upward mobility. Yet Hartford County ranks only in the 43rd percentile nationwide for economic connectedness.


Nationally, upward mobility tends to be more difficult to realize in communities with higher poverty rates, greater income inequality and significant racial segregation.


The climb toward upward mobility requires support and mentors. For KeShawn Adams, a student-athlete boarding at Avon Old Farms School, that support has come from his cohort of fellow HYS students and HYS staff, including chief program officer Armanthia Duncan.


A Windsor resident who was born in Hartford, Adams is a high-school senior. He has committed to play college football as a safety at ACC stalwart Virginia, per online recruiting sources.


“Ms. Duncan … taught me the importance of being more than just an athlete, and being around my cohort was great,” Adams says. “Everybody was pushing everyone to get better.”


The formula is evidently working.


To date, HYS has celebrated the college graduations of more than 120 scholars, and about 91% of HYS college students earn a degree within five years. In contrast, only 17% of Hartford residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2020 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.


More than 85 Hartford Youth Scholars are currently attending more than 50 colleges across the country. Victoria Black is one of those scholars. She is pursuing a degree in environmental engineering with a focus on community health. Black says that the staff, faculty, mentors and donors of HYS are fully vested in ensuring that opportunities are available to her and the HYS cohorts.


This kind of dedication helps Black believe in herself and encourages her to want to achieve more.


“I am representing not only myself, but all the Hartford Youth Scholars with me and who will follow me,” she affirms. +


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Open Choice opens doors for all students


THE STATE’S Open Choice program isn’t just a one-way street for urban students to attend suburban schools — this is perhaps a common notion, yet is clearly a misconception.


Administered by the Connecticut Department of Education, Open Choice opens the door for urban youth to attend public schools in a nearby town and for suburban and rural youth to attend public schools in a nearby city — including magnet and charter schools — on a space-available basis in grades K-12.


Open Choice is an equal-opportunity initiative for students statewide of every race, color, religion, gender and national origin.


Lotteries are used to place students when there are more applications than open spaces. +


Source — CT.gov website


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TIMELINE — Hartford Youth Scholars


2005

City community leaders and mayor Eddie Perez launch Hartford Youth Scholars as a scholarship program via his Blue Ribbon Commission Report


2006

HYS partners with Boston-based Steppingstone Foundation and establishes a Hartford Steppingstone Academy to prepare middle-school students for academic excellence in high school


2010

HYS adds high school and college programs


2017

HYS and Steppingstone end formal partnership but continue collaboration — HYS middle-school program rebrands as The Collegiate Academy


2018

Anthony Byers becomes executive director — he joined HYS in 2007


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• Today Magazine — February cover story


• Related content — Exclusive Hartford Youth Scholars Q&A


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Simsbury resident Matthew Broderick has been a frequent freelance writer for magazines statewide — he formerly served as the vice president of development for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford


Bruce Deckert is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Today Magazine — he was a Simsbury resident for 27 years, a reporter and editor for Imprint Newspapers, and a longtime editor for ESPN Digital Media


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