Program Helps Connecticut Kids Aspire to College

The Ana Grace Project developed “Finish the Race" to inform and inspire elementary schoolers. The nonprofit also brings mental health support and professional development to the district's schools. 

As the New Britain, CT, elementary schoolers high-five and fist-bump their way down a line of college administrators, faculty, and students, Nelba Márquez-Greene says a little prayer to herself that they each will “finish the race.”

For her, the phrase is a metaphor for growing up, getting through school, and persevering while being marginalized and without a lot of support.

It is also the name of an annual event Márquez-Greene developed through the Ana Grace Project, the foundation she runs in honor of her daughter. Ana Grace Márquez-Greene was among the 26 students and staff killed at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012. After the shooting, the town was flooded with resources and assistance to help children and families cope.

“The power of that tragedy happening in Newtown is that much attention is given to a community that has a lot of internal structure and resources for kids who suffer from trauma and kids who need a little bit extra,” says Márquez-Greene.

But, she says, she kept thinking about communities like New Britain, where she spent most of her life. Places where children lack resources, opportunity, and support.

At Finish the Race, elementary school students from the Consolidated School District of New Britain (CSDNB) visit Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and learn that college could be an option.

“The biggest myth for our kids is they’ve heard in order to get to college, they have to have straight A’s,” says Márquez-Greene.

When these students visit CCSU in the spring before moving on to middle school, admissions staff explain the financial and academic support available. The kids learn about different majors and college and career paths, meet college students, athletes, and coaches, and corporate sponsor Fleet Feet gives each ­student a new pair of running shoes.

“The idea of the day is to build relationships,” says Márquez-Greene. “There’s a message of hope, ‘Yes, you can totally do this if this is what you want, and we’re here to lift you up.’”

Ryan Langer, CSDNB partnership project manager, runs the grant that funds the Ana Grace Project programs.

Beyond that day on campus, the Ana Grace Project offers vital mental health services at the 12 schools it now works with in the district. In partnership with CCSU, it provides clinical services, and professional development for staff to be trauma informed and able to identify specific behaviors and how to best respond. There is also professional development for staff self-care.

Langer looks at the impact on just one school before and after the Ana Grace Project intervention. In 2012–13 at the K–5 Smalley Elementary School, there were 556 students, and 442 in-school suspensions (including some multiple suspensions of the same student), and 24 percent of the kids were chronically absent.

In 2017–18, with the Ana Grace Project support, the same school had 662 students, 14 in-school suspensions, and 19 percent chronic absenteeism. Langer believes there is a direct correlation to the nonprofit's outreach and the change in suspension statistics.

This partnership is there for the students and staff every day, and culminates in an eye-opening campus visit that ends with that smile-filled gauntlet of high-fives.

The kids give feedback each year and lunch is always their favorite part of the day, and it's not just because of the pizza, according to Marquez-Greene. The children are not rushed through, having double or triple the time given for lunch at school. They are also are allowed to have seconds and sit and socialize with college students. Marquez-Greene knows this would thrill Ana Grace.

“This is a day of joy and celebration and faith and love and I can think of no clearer signal that she’s pleased with what we’re doing than when we get our evaluations back and the kids said that lunch was one of their highlights. My daughter loved food,” she says. “Just the idea that this isn’t just about focusing on academics. This is focusing on the whole child, movement and space and time, and just investing is just really important. It’s a day full of joy.”

For more information on the Ana Grace Project or to contribute to the Finish the Race program: anagraceproject.org or the CCSU Foundation’s Network For Good Ana Grace Project.

 

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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