Young Scholars Program gives help, hope to disadvantaged youth
For more than twenty years, the Young Scholars Liberty Partnership Program has taken kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and given them a fighting chance to earn a high school diploma and more. Of the 40 Liberty Partnerships located in the state of New York, Utica is one the largest with about 350 students enrolled a year.
This study hall in Thomas R. Proctor High School in Utica is like many others across the state. Students do their homework in here and receive help from teachers and aides working in the room.
But this isn’t a typical study hall and these aren’t typical students – they’re “young scholars.”
The Young Scholars Program was started in 1993 as a means of helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in school. Whether they come from low-income families or ones without much formal education, the program gives them tools to help guide them through high school and on to college.
Young scholars was basically a huge college prep program, starting in sixth grade.
Elliot Coleman is a sophomore at Utica College and a Young Scholars graduate. He also works as a mentor to students currently enrolled in the program. He credits it with preparing him for life after high school.
“It was just preparing you and getting you ready for the real world,” said Coleman.
Kids can be nominated for the program in the sixth grade. If accepted, students remain with the program from seventh grade until they finish high school.
Ben Atwood, the site supervisor of the Young Scholars Program at Proctor, tries to broaden students’ perspectives. That’s one of his many jobs.
“We are trying to facilitate the process for students to go from high school to college and there are a lot of different things we do to make that a reality,” said Atwood.
Things like academic tutoring, providing opportunities for community service and social work, and taking students on college visits. But while Young Scholars is designed with academics in mind, Atwood says that the kind of help the program gives varies from student to student.
“We meet the students where they are. We have several students in the program who are Ivy League caliber students. They’re not the type of students who need help with their English homework. But they say, ‘Oh my goodness. This financial aid process, it’s just a labyrinth and no one knows how to help me.’ That’s when we come in,” said Atwood.
The Young Scholars program has maintained a 93 percent graduation rate among its students, nearly 20 points higher than the New York average. Since 2005, 86 percent of Young Scholars graduates have gone on to college.
For those in the program, the experience has been invaluable for a variety of reasons.
“They taught us how to cash a check and write a check,” said Proctor freshman Courtney Andrews
“It helped me to see things that I do as part of my schoolwork and community service. The good things I can do from that. It helped me see the world, said Makhil Mitchell.
“They helped me become more active in the community by doing community hours and stuff like that. Giving me opportunities to do stuff like that. I wouldn’t do too much, if it wasn’t for that,” said Proctor student Santhit Kyi.
The program is free for students. The $1,500 annual cost has been covered by grants, mostly from the state’s Liberty Partnership Program and the Utica City School District, plus some smaller grants and private donations.
But as the high-need district itself has lost millions of dollars in funding, it’s had to cut its support for young scholars by almost $230,000. The program finds itself as a crossroads, says program director Flossie Mitchell.
“I think we are at a point right now where the Young Scholars program needs to shift into a different place,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell says a greater proportion of their budget must go to sustaining the program.
“So we’re learning as we’re trying to make this shift right now about what it is we need to do, and devoting some dollars to marketing and fundraising is clearly going to be part of what we have to do.”
The Utica school district is one of the poorest in the state. Mitchell says education is one of the best ways out of poverty, and the Young Scholars program is helping graduate kids ready for college and career.
Jon Kealy reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.