In Focus: Ulysses S. Grant Program

In a fan-cooled classroom on the Yale campus on a sweltering July morning, David Johnson is so on fire that he can barely stop raising his hand.

Johnson, a rising sixth grader at the Beecher Museum School of Arts and Sciences in New Haven, has just listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and he’s making connections between the words and images of the speech and everything he knows so far about its historical context. Johnson is eager to share these epiphanies with his teacher, Yale junior Samuel Purdy, and with his classmates.

A participant in Yale’s Ulysses S. Grant Program - a summer-school experience for sixth- through ninth-grade New Haven students run by Yale undergraduates - Johnson has only recently developed an interest in history. He credits Purdy’s “Speaking Up for Freedom” class with sparking his enthusiasm. Among other topics, the class explores the oratory of the civil rights movement.

“I became interested when I started learning about black history,” explains Johnson. “Hearing the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. has really been interesting to me, and I want to learn as much as I can about those leaders and their times.”

He has even welcomed an occasional homework assignment for the class. “The homework isn’t mandatory, but it makes me feel good to accomplish something, so I like doing it,” he says.

Such initiative and motivation are typical of the 82 students who participated in this year’s Ulysses S. Grant Program, according to its co-directors, Purdy and recent Yale graduate Vernon Riley.

Established 55 years ago by a civic-minded Yale student named Eugene Van Voorhis ‘55, ‘58 LL.B., the program was originally designed as a full-year tutoring program for African-American students as a way to help them eventually gain admission to selective colleges and universities. It has evolved over the years to become a six-week summer program for talented and motivated middle school students of any race who attend New Haven public schools and affiliated Catholic schools. The cost of the program is $75, and about one-quarter of its participants receive financial aid.

Before being admitted, students must demonstrate their passion for learning by filling out a lengthy application and obtaining teacher recommendations. They must also submit school transcripts and standardized test scores. This year, nearly 150 students applied for the program; because of space limitations and other considerations, nearly half had to be turned down.

“The kids who are admitted really want to be here,” says Purdy, noting that 75% of last year’s students who were eligible to return did so.

Today, the mission of the Ulysses S. Grant Program (more informally called the U.S. Grant Program) is to provide students with an experience they might not encounter in their regular school settings, according to Purdy and Riley.

“We try to cover academic topics that don’t usually fit into the typical English/math/science curriculum,” says Purdy. “Our goal is to equip kids with a variety of skills they can use beyond Ulysses S. Grant - in their regular classrooms, in their communities and in their future workplaces as well.”

Developing skills for life

In single-grade morning classes, students develop critical thinking and oral and written communication skills as they explore history and literature in their “Humanities” course, and hone problem-solving skills through hands-on projects in the natural and social sciences in their “Investigations” class. During the afternoon, they participate in elective courses, sports and games, and clubs. All of the classes are designed and taught by Yale undergraduates, who are trained and supported by staff in Yale’s Teacher Preparation and Education Studies Program.

Among this year’s courses were “Beakers, Flasks and Explosions,” an introduction to laboratory science techniques; “The American Dream and the Dream Revised,” which, among other topics, explored the immigrant experience; “Go Green!” - an environmental science class focusing on solar energy, sustainability and environmental issues in an urban setting; “Reel History,” an exploration of history (particularly student resistance movements) through film; and “Genetics and Gen-ethics,” focusing on DNA, chromosomes and ethical issues in that field.

The afternoon electives included musical theater, hip-hop dance, a book club, architecture, cooking, model United Nations, slam poetry writing, creative writing, sports and games, mock trial/constitutional law, and a class on the 2008 presidential election. These activities allowed the students to mix with their peers in other grades.

“While less academic, these afternoon classes are still designed to be very informative,” says Riley.

The summer program also features a number of special events and field trips, which this year included a partnership with the Common Ground High School to learn about harvesting and sustainable food practices, as well as a visit with youth leaders in the West Rock community organization Solar Youth; an outing at Yale’s Outdoor Education Center in East Lyme; a tour of Davenport College (to learn what residential college life is like at Yale); and other class-specific excursions, such as a visit to the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory for a demonstration by chemistry professor Jonathan Parr as part of “Beakers, Flasks and Explosions.”

Being a part of the community

Only some of this summer’s nine Yale undergraduate teachers are pursuing a career in teaching.

“I do have an interest in teaching, but until I began teaching in the Grant Program last year, I wasn’t really sure what that meant,” says Purdy, who is majoring in history. Like many of the other U.S. Grant teachers, he became involved in the program because it allowed him to feel a part of the New Haven community, he says.

Riley, a graduate of Yale’s Teacher Preparation and Education Studies Program, co-directed the program this summer so he could gain some administrative experience before heading off to Michigan State University for a master’s degree in education. He previously taught in the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center and completed his student teaching at Hamden High School.

Another teacher, Frances Hayden Mulligan ‘11, says she worked in the Ulysses S. Grant Program to help her decide her own future goals. “I’ve always known that I wanted to either be a doctor or an environmental science teacher,” she adds. “I wanted to see what felt better for me before I braved organic chemistry my sophomore year.”

Mulligan was particularly impressed with her students’ enthusiasm for learning. “[The students] raise their hands so desperately in the air it’s hard not to laugh at their eagerness,” she comments. “They ask great questions; they work hard, and they are never shy to show their appreciation when something interests them.”

Purdy believes that the relatively small gap in age between the Yale teachers and their students is one of the benefits of the program.

“The students and the teachers are peers in a way but are also a generation apart,” he says. “Because we are all students, it makes for a more relaxed environment than a regular school setting. … The program has such a diverse group of kids, so they learn from each other and they learn from us, and we, in turn, learn from them.”

‘Inspiring a new generation of scholars’

On occasion, the Yale teachers invited special guest speakers to their classes. For his course on “Practical Business Applications,” for example, Yale junior Jarrett Burks invited a U.S. Grant Program alumnus to his classroom - Louis Cox, the owner of the New Haven boutique and art gallery Channel 1.

Cox, who participated in the Grant Program during the 1980s, spoke to the youngsters about some of the issues faced by entrepreneurs. “You have to have incredible self-discipline to be an entrepreneur,” he told the young students. “You need to understand the pressures. Today, you are competing against a kid in Europe, or China or Russia, and the person who comes out on top is the person with the most drive.”

Cox says he was thrilled to be invited back to the Ulysses S. Grant Program, which, he says, “made me what I am today.

“The Grant Program was one of the opportunities I had at a young age that really had an impact on me,” he adds. “I am glad to be able to give back to it 28 years later.”

Other Ulysses S. Grant Program alumni include Common Ground High School founder Oliver Barton ‘85, Connecticut Supreme Court justice Flemming Norcott Jr., and Janna Wagner ‘95, the founder of All Our Kin, a non-profit group in New Haven that trains low-income mothers to become early childhood specialists. Wagner now serves as the chair of the Ulysses S. Grant Program’s board of directors.

“I participated in the program in the mid-1980s,” says Wagner. “Excellent summer programs were expensive and my mom was a single mother with two daughters trying to make ends meet. U.S. Grant was a perfect option because it was a high-quality summer program, and it was affordable.

“At Grant, learning was hands-on and fun,” she continues. “My teachers were cool, young, supportive and energetic. They challenged to me work harder, to think more creatively, and to revel in all the wonders of the world. At Grant, it was cool to be a nerd. I felt at home.”

Many of the schoolchildren in this year’s program say their dreams for the future have been inspired by their experience in the Grant program.

Rising sixth-grader Daniel Brigham of the Sheridan Communications & Technology Magnet School says he’d like to be a lawyer or an astronaut and hopes someday to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spent some time this summer interviewing his 89-year-old grandmother about discrimination against women as part of an assignment for the “Speaking Up for Freedom” class, in which students were asked to write a speech about something they’d like to change.

Alex DaSilva, a sixth grader at the Edgewood Magnet School who hopes to be either an archaeologist or an architect, says he particularly enjoyed his model United Nations class and his architecture class. As a project for the latter, DaSilva worked with classmates on the design of a shopping center near the Yale campus.

“I want it to feel like you are at Yale, where it looks castle-like and Gothic,” said DaSilva during the creation phase of his project. “I’m always looking around at the campus buildings to come up with my ideas.”

Christine Puglisi, a rising seventh-grade student at the Edgewood Magnet School who had never been on the Yale campus until she participated in the Grant Program last summer, says she now dreams of attending the University. She says she is “in awe” of the opportunity she’s had to read such authors as Thoreau, Emerson, Langston Hughes and Robert Frost this summer.

“Most people don’t get to read Thoreau until they are in college - or at least high school,” says Puglisi. “And to be doing that while I am on the Yale campus - well, that is like a dream for me.”

Puglisi says the “Speaking Up for Freedom” class she took last year also made her feel that she can have an impact on her own community. “I started a garden at my school, which is something I wouldn’t have done before I took that class. That class made me feel like I can make a change.”

Since she started the program, Jazlyn Ocasio says that all of her dreams feel within her reach.

A rising seventh grader at the Conte/West Hills Magnet School, Ocasio credits her class on “The American Dream and the Dream Revised” with giving her a new goal.

“Before I took this class, I had no idea what was meant by the ‘American dream,’” she says. “But we’ve been learning about other peoples’ dreams and what they hope to accomplish. Many of my family members live in poverty in the Dominican Republic. My dream is to go to Yale or Harvard so I can learn as much as I can, get a good job, and help them by sending them money.

“If I had just one thing to say about the U.S. Grant Program,” Ocasio continues, it would be this: It’s a privilege to be a part of it.”

- By Susan Gonzalez

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