Category: Literacy & Education

On Point for College

Antwann Kearse, a graduate of Henninger High School, was harboring a secret when he arrived home on winter break during his first year attending Morrisville State College. His family, beaming with pride, chattered about how well he was doing in college. But Kearse knew better — he had just been put on academic probation.

“I did horribly,” Kearse said. “I looked at school as a vacation. I had too much fun.”

It was right there, surrounded by the people he loved most, when a lightbulb went off — his family wouldn’t be the only ones disappointed in him; so would his On Point for College (On Point) mentors, as well as the high school teachers who believed in his potential from the start.

“It was that moment when I realized a lot of people looked up to me to succeed and believed in my success,” Kearse said. “I didn’t want to be in that situation anymore.”

When Kearse was growing up in Syracuse’s Southside neighborhood, his family stuck together despite challenging times. At one point, they lived without a car after his father was in an accident. During that time he recalls having to walk a lot and hearing gunshots ring through his neighborhood — one that is riddled with repeated acts of violence.

Once he returned to college, Kearse was motivated to turn things around. He chose to buckle down and focus on achieving his academic goals. He went on to earn an associate’s degree in marketing from Morrisville before moving on to the University at Buffalo. He graduated with a 3.8 cumulative GPA (summa cum laude) with a bachelor’s degree in operations and supply chain management.

While Kearse’s academic accomplishments are the direct result of his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, he credits On Point for making the next step of his education seem possible.

“The staff helped me in many ways,” Kearse said. “They made sure that I got back and forth to school. My advisor also helped me attain an internship that fell in line with my course of study. They are why I consistently stayed in school instead of giving up.”

On Point offers support programs for 17- to 29-year-old students to help them overcome barriers so they can access training, college education and careers that lead to success in life. Since it was established in 1999, On Point has helped more than 7,000 students enroll in college. Between 700-1,000 new students are welcomed each year.

The Community Foundation has fostered On Point’s growth over the years, awarding more than $200,000 in grants dating back to its inception. These grants have had a variety of goals, including measuring performance and community impact, advancing the professional development of its staff and expanding its career mentoring program. The one thing all of the grants had in common is this: they all served the greater goal of helping students like Kearse achieve their potential.

Kearse is now working as a Materials Handling Supervisor for General Motors. His vision for himself goes beyond just his amazing career, however. He also hopes to one day establish his own nonprofit organization to mentor kids.

“I don’t know where I may end up,” he said, “I’m just counting my blessings, seeing and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.”

Imagination Library

Every month, more than 1,500 families in Madison County receive a free children’s book in the mail, allowing them to experience the joy of reading together. These families are participants in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL), a program that strives to increase childhood literacy skills by providing children from birth through age five with one book per month at no cost to their families.

Children who enter kindergarten unprepared can struggle, lose confidence and fall behind. But reading with these children can play a critical role in providing them with high quality learning experiences, better preparing them for success later on. This is especially critical in rural Madison County, where only about 20 percent of children are enrolled in early childhood programs.

A study led by Le Moyne College faculty members, including Community Foundation Vice President Frank Ridzi, Ph.D., found that those who consistently took part in DPIL were 30 percent more likely to be prepared to enter kindergarten than their non-participating peers.

“Research shows children in this program are going to have more success in school and higher self-esteem,” said Mike Drahos, former executive director of the Literacy Coalition of Madison County. “In the end, these students are going to grow up to be well-educated community citizens who can help address our local poverty problems.”

Thanks to the diligent work of our local literacy coalitions, DPIL is available county-wide in both Madison and Onondaga counties. The Community Foundation supports the program by providing management, research and funding to both coalitions. Several community organizations partner to enroll children. Many also conduct family programs that correlate with the books they are reading.

“There are pockets of great things happening in the 660 square miles of Madison County, and roping them together is the challenge,” Drahos said. “The Community Foundation has provided us the leadership capacity to achieve our goals, serving as a tremendous partner as we move forward.”

Imagination Library is proving to be an invaluable resource in developing literacy skills in our region’s children. Together, our community is helping foster a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

Say Yes to Education

When Samantha Turnquest moved with her family from New York City to Syracuse, she had big plans for her education. But she was faced with one major roadblock: affordability. Her mother worked full-time to support her and her three brothers and Samantha felt overwhelmed by the daunting responsibility of paying for college alone.

“If you don’t have opportunity, it’s hard to see a vision for yourself,” Turnquest said.

This is a common problem for students in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), where half of the students live in poverty. Say Yes to Education was introduced in Syracuse eight years ago to help the community come together around a common goal: increasing post-secondary educational attainment for the city’s children.

This community-wide partnership provides SCSD students with a path to college in the form of last-dollar scholarships. Say Yes also provides other supports, from legal and health services to mental health support and after-school programs.

The Community Foundation contributed $2 million to Say Yes and provides ongoing convening support, fiscal management and strategic guidance. We administer the Say Yes Scholarship Endowment Fund, which provides perpetual funding for the scholarships.

Bolstered by community support and substantial grants from SRC, Inc., the City of Syracuse and Central New York Regional Economic Development Council, the fund is now fully endowed at $30 million, creating a path to college for generations of SCSD students to come.

We can already see the impact of this promise. The district has witnessed a 14% jump in its overall high school graduation rate since 2008. And in 2016, 64% of both Caucasian and African-American students graduated from high school, showcasing the elimination of a previous gap between the academic achievement of white and black students.

Say Yes came to Turnquest’s school, the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School, just in time. She was able to attend the University of Albany, graduating this year with a biology degree. She has plans to pursue physical therapy or public health.

“Say Yes cares about your future beyond the classroom,” she said. “Their support makes you want to go further in your education. No matter what path I pursue, I’m going to make sure I’m always giving back to pay it forward for the help I received.”