The Future Project: National School Experiment Starts In New Haven, New York, D.C.

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

A daycare in every New Haven public school for young mothers. A documentary about the devastating effects of bullying. Teen-to-teen therapy sessions. A plan to end youth violence.

Those are just three of 60 projects that New Haven Academy students started working on this fall. Each student has a coach -- a volunteer college student or recent grad, or young professional from the community -- who serves as a mentor and a resource.

It's all part of "The Future Project," a program started by Yale grads Andrew Mangino and Kanya Balakrishna that inaugurated in three cities this year. New York City and Washington, D.C. are the other two. This is the program's first year. The idea is to expand it next year within New Haven beyond New Haven Academy.

The program offers a lower-cost, one-on-one route alternative to Teach for America for young adults to work with urban schoolkids: by intensively mentoring them for a year to launch a community project that draws on their passions. In most cases, each volunteers spend 90 minutes a week working with the same student for the academic year.

New Haven's experiment reached its first threshold this week, as students presented their project ideas to panels of community leaders at sessions held in the Grove communal workspace on Orange Street.

"We want to be a domestic Peace Corps," said Laura Winnick, a graduate of Hamden High and the University of Michigan who is executive director of the program's New Haven branch. "A lot of disparate communities [undergraduates and public school students, to name a few] live in New Haven. Our goal is to spread those circles and link them."

One recent afternoon, a small group of students -- called "future fellows" -- and five coaches filed into room 101 at New Haven Academy on Orange Street. It was time for their eight weekly 90-minute session together.

Most future fellows are working on individual projects, which they'll present for feedback to a panel of politicians and community activists this week. The students in this group -- called "Team Swag" -- are a little different. They asked if they could work as a team to create a documentary about bullying.

"So many people are bullied in school. I see it on the bus, I see it in class," said junior Alisha Giglil. She's dealt with bullies herself at the school. At a time when her dad was in and out of her life, "I didn't want to come to school, but I didn't want to go home, either," she remembered.

Initially, her idea was to have events at her school modeled on the MTV show "If You Really Knew Me." For the show, MTV staff travel to different high schools and put on "Challenge Day," getting kids to talk to each other about what's going on in their lives, starting with the phrase, "If you really knew me."

"It just comes to the point where people should know what you go through every day," Giglil said.

It turned out Taylor Gatison, a junior with a passion for taking photos, was proposing a photography exhibit about the effects of bullying. She's already done a shoot with Alyssa and other friends, and posts the photos on a Tumblr blog.

Gatison became interested in photography when her grandfather gave her his camera. She and her coach, Yale freshman Susannah Benjamin, decided that photos could show how bullying victims are silenced every day.

Future Fellow and New Haven Academy junior Nick Mahan loves video. So the group of coaches and fellows decided that instead of working on individual projects, they'd pool their resources and work on a documentary. Click on the video here, created by coach and Yale freshman Will McPherson, to see a sneak peek of their proposal.

Last Thursday was the group's last meeting -- program staff call meeting "huddles" -- before they present their project to a panel this week at The Grove that will include New Haven State Rep. Juan Candelaria and former Alderwoman Lindy Gold. The students will have 30 minutes to sell their idea to get $1,500 in funding from the program. (The Future Project is funded primarily by individual philanthropists).

The students, a little nervous about speaking in front of a high-profile audience, got to work deciding how to give a compelling presentation. They started by announcing the alarming number of child and teen suicides in the past year due to bullying and putting a face to each story.

"I think we have to be horrifying, because it's the truth," said Benjamin. Everyone agreed, and started making index cards with the information about each suicide case -- Jamey Rodemeyer, Jamie Hubley, to name just two. The plan is to begin their presentation with each member of the group reading from a different note card about a different suicide.

Winnick said the Future Project's vision is to provide a coach for every single New Haven Public School student. With coaches for 60 students at New Haven Academy out of a total 250, the first year of the program isn't off to a bad start. The next stop in New Haven, she said, is Hillhouse High.

"There is this energy out there among the generation of young Americans rising right now, who want to give back to education. They know that's the cause of our time," said Mangino (a former New Haven Independent intern). "And the way that we can really, really make a difference in schools is by creating a model that would enable students to become agents of inspiration and agents of change in their schools and in their community. [The Future Project] is the marriage of those two ideas."