Albany Community Charter School second-grader, Samir Bunch already has plans for college. (Michael Hallisey / TheSpot518)
ALBANY — The school year is just about letting out, but by this coming fall, more than 1,000 underserved children in the City of Albany will have a college savings account.
And, it all started with a bunch of fraternity brothers.
Fraternity and Albany Medical Center. It’s a million-dollar pilot program focused to inspire, and fund, the dreams of a college education for low income families.
“The opportunity to attend college is personal to the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity,” said Christopher G Ellis, Jr., chairman of the George Biddle Kelley Education Foundation. “We know full well that we do not have the luxury of standing on the sidelines as the knowledge and innovation economy accelerates into hyper-drive and leaves certain communities in its wake.”
The program is unique in upstate New York, reflecting a community’s commitment to helping improve the high school graduation rate and to inspire youth to visualize the possibility of high education as early as the third grade.
According to the state Department of Education, the Albany City School District has the worst dropout rate among public schools
stark contrast to the top schools, all within suburban communities, which average a dropout rate of about 2 percent.
“The Collegiate Scholars of Tomorrow Program, with its college savings fund and special programming, is part of an innovative solution for our community to address an abysmal trend,” said Ellis. “This program’s strength lies in our collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders — leaders from business, education and government — who share with us a common vision for our city’s children: new and increased opportunities and a significant promise of a better tomorrow.”
The program targets third-grade students in Albany schools and the children of graduates of the Baby Institute, a grass roots organization that promotes literacy and school preparedness for families in Albany’s South End, Arbor Hill and West Hill.
“The Baby Institute’s goal is to help parents prepare children for college from the moment they are born,” said Noelene Smith, founder and executive director of The Baby Institute. “With the commitment of the ‘Collegiate Scholars of Tomorrow Program,’ parents can believe in the reality of college for their children. I can’t tell you how unbelievable this moment is to me. This gives our children and families real hope.”
Each program participant will receive a New York State 529 College Savings account, administered by the New York state Comptroller, in the student’s name. All participants and their families will attend special quarterly programs, developed and operated by George Biddle Kelley Education Foundation, to reinforce the importance of college attendance and address critical needs — establishing healthy living, strategies and the tools for parental engagement at school, financial literacy and fostering intellectual curiosity.
Each savings account is expected to reach a modest amount of $400 upon high school graduation. According to Ellis, research shows that students who save for post-secondary education are three times more likely to enroll into college.
The program began last year through discussions with the education foundation and James Barba, Albany’s Med’s president and CEO. With the hospital’s help, the foundation gathered financial commitments from Nigo Companies, Tri City Rentals, CDPHP, SEFCU, NYSCOPBA, Inc., MVP Health Care, Kinderhook Bank, and more. All of which raised nearly $500,000. Another $700,000 was donated by Robert F. Smith, founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners in Austin, Texas.
Smith is also a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha.
“This is a challenge for which we all share responsibility,” said Barba. “Together, we can offer all young children the opportunity — and the right — to dream no small dreams. We should deliver to them nothing less.”
Nearly 100 people were in attendance for the program’s announcement at Albany Medical Center in May. Included in the crowd was scores of area business, education, government and civic leaders, a dozen of whom spoke to express praise of the program’s initiative, including Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and County Executive Daniel McCoy. All were upstaged by a Albany Community Charter School second-grader, Samir Bunch.
Bunch, who wants to grow-up to be a policemen, had everyone on their feet once he was finished with his speech.
“Language can be hard,” he said, “but it challenges me to do the hard things in life. Even though I haven’t visited a college campus, I know I will go to college to be a stand-up citizen of the community.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.