Should ESPN Fund A Bristol Promise?

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By Brett Hoover

When former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison this week, it was another blow to Bristol, Conn., a city of about 60,000 which sits about 20 miles west of the state capitol, Hartford.

Hernandez is not just a son of Bristol, he was both a prep star and honor student at Bristol Central High. Two years ago — just three weeks before the murder of which he would be convicted — he was given a Pop Warner Inspiration to Youth Award.

“He was Bristol’s golden boy. People had a lot of hopes and dreams on his shoulders,” J.R. Rusgrove, owner of the city’s Parkside Cafe, told Don Stacom of the Hartford Courant. “Some people are shocked. I think everybody is really sad.”

While the outside world has come to know Bristol as the home of ESPN, the self-appointed “World Wide Leader in Sports,” insiders must recognize that — despite the massive infusion of tax dollars from the network and its countless spinoffs — the former factory town is struggling with little sign of a turnaround.

While its minority and low-income student populations nearly tripled in the last 15 to 20 years, the school district’s workforce lacks the diversity of its learners. And in just the last seven years the district has experienced a double-digit percentage decrease in enrollment.

What does that mean for the next decade? Researchers from the University of Connecticut and officials from the school district disagree. Both recognize that enrollment will continue a downward trend, but the debate is simply its rapidity.

While ESPN’s sprawling campus with more than 4,000 employees has been a tremendous asset, not all of the attention has been positive. Some of ESPN’s best-known figures have been sarcastically critical of the city and the perception is that a significant number of employees swing through the empire’s gates to and from work, never stopping to support Bristol.

This is not to say that the corporate executives have not helped city officials improve the community. Not long ago, ESPN donated $1 million to the Bristol Boys & Girls Club and many employees do volunteer their time. Yet the question remains — is it enough?

Is it ESPN’s responsibility to make a real commitment to Bristol in the form of a Promise program which makes college affordable for those who achieve? Probably not. Would it be wise for ESPN to make that commitment to the place where it has continuously constructed its campus for more than three decades now? Surely.

Within the last year Forbes reported that ESPN’s value had eclipsed $50 billion. Located within a school district of fewer than 8,000 students, ESPN could easily fund a $1 million-a-year program similar to the one in nearby New Haven and another starting in Hartford in 2016.

After all, a $1 million gift from ESPN is equivalent to a man with $500 sparing a penny.


ADDENDUM (10:50 AM): A December 2013 New York Times story about ESPN indicated that the company has received more than a quarter-billion dollars in state tax breaks and credits little more than a decade, including “savings of about $15 million a year since the network successfully lobbied the state for a tax code change in 2000.”


Brett Hoover — who formerly served as the Associate Director of the Ivy League — convinced ESPN to bring its live College GameDay Show to an Ivy League venue, Harvard at Penn, in 2002. That show — which drew a record audience — opened the GameDay tour to the full spectrum of college football.

The Scholars Will Change The City

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On Tuesday in New Haven, Conn., a large collection of the city’s movers and shakers gathered for the release of a study from the RAND Corporation — Transforming an Urban School System — which studied the early progress of education reforms launched in 2010.

RAND’s community briefing — presented by Dr. Gabriella C. Gonzalez — focused on both the broad New Haven School Change initiative as well as the impact of New Haven Promise, which currently funds more than 400 college students across the state of Connecticut.

np-logoThe district-wide findings showed modest gains. Average test scores showed improvement and college-going increased slightly. Dropout rates at the lowest-performing schools showed improvement, as did test scores at those same schools. And overall, RAND summarized, there was an increased college-going culture across the school district.

The results were perhaps exactly what one might expect in just three years of implementation as the work to change the course of an entire city’s school district is a long-term commitment.

But the assembled press gave nearly as much attention to a two-page infographic produced by New Haven Promise as it did the RAND findings.

Instead of focusing on the 22,800 students in the entire district, New Haven Promise focused on those who’d earned the scholarship and the numbers told a far more complete narrative of the power of the Promise. Among those findings:

• New Haven’s public schools suffered five straight years of declining enrollment before Promise was announced. Since the announcement there has been a 10-percent jump in city-wide public school enrollment.

• Eighty percent of the first cohort to earn and accept the Promise Scholarship went to college the fall following their high school graduation. By 2014, the fourth cohort, that matriculation rate jumped to 98 percent.

• Comparing its first two cohorts to its most recent two, New Haven Promise has seen the biggest jump in attainment from minority males. Black and Hispanic males receiving Promise funding has increased by 104 percent, compared to 40 percent for all other recipients.

• More than 40 percent of Promise Scholars are from families with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year. And that group’s current scholars have a higher median grade-point average than those from families with incomes higher than $30,000. (This despite critics calling Promise a “very middle-class approach” at its launch.)

• Fewer than one-third of Promise Scholars posted a semester GPA of 3.0 in the first three semesters of the initiative. In each of the last two semesters the percentage has reached 45 percent. If the usual “spring bump” happens this current semester, around half of the 400+ scholars will top 3.0.

• The combination of Promise and PELL has deeply impacted the entire city with 12 of the 30 wards receiving at least $200,000 for their students in four years. Each ward represents slightly more than 4,000 individuals.

The combination of funding, informing, networking, data collecting and analysis at the next level is the most sure-fire way to change the educational outcomes for a city. New Haven has discovered that.

No, Not A Pet Project

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One of the exciting developments in the Promise movement in 2014 was the establishment of the Richmond Promise in California’s Bay Area, which was announced in August.

The man credited with its founding was city council member Jael Myrick, who negotiated the package with Chevron Richmond as part of the Richmond Refinery Modernization Project. While the funding has yet to begin to flow, students in the city will soon have college options previously unavailable.

Myrick was one of six local officials to fly across the country in November to attend PromiseNet 2014 in New Haven, Conn., and admitted afterward that the delegation learned so much that they’d need some time to decompress and assess.

Since then, Myrick — who is not yet 30 — has been named the vice mayor of the City of Richmond for 2015. His closest council ally on the Richmond Promise project was Tom Butt, who is now the mayor. Expect a lot of movement with the Promise in 2015.

Myrick — pictured at left above with Von Washington of the Kalamazoo Promise at the Yale University Art Gallery in November — recently posted a suggestion regarding the initiative to his Facebook page:

The next person who refers to the Richmond Promise as a “pet project” has to come with me to Kennedy High (better yet Gompers) and give their Bachelor’s Degree to a deserving but struggling High School Senior, quit their job and then go online to find a new job with no degree or certification.

Yes, the commitment stands.