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Success drives HWSC’s expansion

Just 30 Rochester students were on the rolls of the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection when the program started three decades ago. Today, thousands of students, some of whom will graduate from high schools hundreds of miles away, benefit from the program.

“We serve over 4,500 young people in Upstate New York, and also in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.,” said Roderick Green, executive director of strategic expansions for the Hillside Family of Agencies, with which HWSC is affiliated.

The program appears to have met with great success. According to a recent report, 96 percent of the students who complete HWSC’s job training classes and work for one of its employment partners graduate from high school.

HWSC began as the Wegmans Work-Scholarship Connection, which Wegmans Food Markets Inc. created in response to the Rochester City School District’s skyrocketing high school dropout rates.

“The original concept was to take 30 kids who they thought would probably drop out of school, and try and help them graduate,” Chairman Danny Wegman said.

The Hillside Children’s Center, which is part of the Hillside Family of Agencies, took over the program in 1996.

“We said, ‘This program works. This program can double the graduation rate, and so this should be a community effort, not a Wegmans effort,’” Wegman said. “That’s why we switched.”

Each of HWSC’s professional youth advocates provides a variety of services for some 30 seventh to 12th grade students.

“We are charged with carrying that child through graduation, so that they will graduate in four years, and on time,” said Brenda Ortiz, who is based at the Rochester City School District’s Edison Career and Technology High School. “We help them with all aspects of life.”

Ortiz mentors her charges, teaches them life skills and links them to tutoring, Regents and college prep courses, and other educational services that they need to succeed academically. At the same time, she helps them and their families deal with issues that could prevent the kids from graduating.

“That is anywhere from linking them to mental health services or, if they become homeless, or their family becomes homeless, linking them with services to help them with that,” Ortiz said.

Students who qualify can also take Youth Employment Training, HWSC’s 25-hour workforce readiness program for those who want to undertake their first work experiences. Completion allows the youths to apply for paid, entry-level part-time jobs with local employers. Youth advocates, who are on-call around the clock, stand ready to guide or assist them as they earn their paychecks.

“Answering a phone call after work hours, or picking up a student who missed the bus and is getting out of work and needs a ride at 8 o’clock at night? We do that, as well,” Ortiz said.

As of last April, 740 of the students in the HWSC program were employed part-time. Of that number, Wegmans stores in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Prince Georges County had 536 of them on the payroll. The program also serves students in the Gates Chili Central School District, as well as in schools in Greece, Rome, Oneida County, and Salamanca, Cattaraugus County.

HWSC’s expansion into Prince Georges County began back in 2007.

“Our core model is standardized, and offered up in its entirety to any school district,” said Augustin Melendez, president of the HWSC.

The process began when HWSC caught the eye of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which aids institutions and programs that serve the nation’s low-income youth.

“The reason, I think, we got the attention is that we’d gone through some independent evaluations that had shown that young people that are in our program … graduate at higher percentages than young people that aren’t in our program, in similar districts,” Green said.

At that time, HWSC was serving local kids and those in Syracuse’s schools. To help the program move beyond those environs, the foundation invested $4 million in it over four years.

“Part of the business plan for expansion asked us to look at expanding our reach outside of New York State,” Green said. “They said, ‘We’d like to see, could you replicate your model?’”

After considering other locations, HWSC officials decided to expand into Prince Georges County, which borders Washington, D.C. Though as many as 75 percent of the students in some of that county’s high schools graduate on time, other schools do not fare as well.

“There are persistently low-achieving schools, high concentrations of poverty,” Green said.

HWSC began working with the youths in some of those schools in 2008. In 2015, it expanded again, this time into Washington, D.C. The program now is helping students in nine Prince Georges County schools and two in the nation’s capital, including a charter school.

“We started pretty small—with 90 students—and then almost 10 years later we’re serving nearly 800 students in that region,” Green said.

At the same time, HWSC’s youths are working for firms that call Prince Georges County home. The program appears to be a good fit for some of the Marriott International Inc.’s properties.

“We have a commitment to social responsibility, and we try to make any location where there’s a Marriott hotel a better place to work, live and experience the community,” said Charles Ewing, market director of human resources for the Marriott’s full-service properties in Prince Georges County.

Acting upon that commitment, the company began hiring HWSC students late last year.

“We thought it was a wonderful opportunity for us to … give back to the community and … create a pathway for the youth to possibly find job opportunities within the hospitality industry,” Ewing said.

Marriott took on its first group of four students last October, HWSC records show.

“The goal in the internship is for the students to gain practical skills that will enhance their school curriculum,” Ewing said.

Another six students recently began working for the company. Most who do so are employed at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, which is on the campus of the University of Maryland. They work in the kitchen and dining rooms, help set up for big functions and help in other ways, though the emphasis is always on education.

“One of the things that we tell students is ‘This is complementing what you’re going to do in school,’” Ewing said. “The goal for us is for them to finish school and go on to college—if that’s what they desire.”

At the same time, Marriott could benefit from the program in the long term.

“Marriott is always looking for good talent,” Ewing said. “Hopefully, if things work out in the career path that they choose, we will see them four to five years down the road coming in as the next generation of front desk managers, restaurant managers and general managers.”

According to Melendez, expansion of HWSC will depend upon the presence of funding to support growth and sustainability. Given the state of education in the U.S., large numbers of high school students should continue to need such assistance.

“Urban centers all over the nation are failing … to provide them an adequate education and the ability to graduate from high school on time,” he said.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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