One year ago, Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman pledged up to $1 million for a program to prevent students from dropping out of city high schools, provided the Buffalo School District came up with the same amount.
The district was given three years to raise the money. But in the first year, the district put up only $110,000 toward the million-dollar matching grant.
Community advocates said the school district was wasting a golden opportunity to help poor, failing high school students graduate.
Now, interim Superintendent Will Keresztes said the district will play “catch up” and earmark $840,000 over the next two years for Wegmans’ Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, enabling the program to expand at one high school and begin in two others.
“We expect to reach the $1 million mark sometime in the 2015-16 school year,” Keresztes said.
The dropout prevention program, supported by the Wegmans Family Charitable Foundation, was originally started as a way of funneling more minority employees into Wegmans’ upscale, suburban grocery stores.
The Hillside Work-Scholarship program works with more than 4,000 youths in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Prince George’s County, Md., and currently serves 180 students in South Park and Bennett high schools.
Of the 43 struggling South Park students who joined the program four years ago, 40 graduated and three more could graduate in August, said Lamont Williams, executive director of the Hillside program in Buffalo.
The program will now expand into Emerson and Burgard high schools, Keresztes announced Wednesday. The South Park program would also grow, bringing the total number of Buffalo students served to about 360 students.
He added that he expects unanimous board approval later this month to reallocate money originally budgeted for unnecessary expenditures to cover the $420,000 in annual support for the scholarship program each of the next two years.
The district will also create a 10-year funding strategy, with planning assistance from Say Yes Buffalo, to ensure the scholarship program’s continued growth, he said.
“It’s about students first and foremost,” Keresztes said.
It’s not all good news, however.
Bennett High School’s scholarship program, which started three years ago and has 90 students, was sustained by the school’s partner organization Buffalo Promise Neighborhood. But now that Buffalo Promise Neighborhood has withdrawn its support from the school, the Hillside organization is picking up the $300,000 annual expense until those 90 students leave high school.
No new students will be added unless another funder steps forward, Williams said.
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.
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.