More students like Emily Colón and Zaneta Langley may be taking up boxing, as two school programs receive a major boost from downtown’s newest corporate philanthropist.

Emily and Zaneta, both seniors at Metropolitan Business Academy, have been learning to jab and hook on punching bags this year as part of the Boost! initiative, which brought extra after-school programming to their magnet high school.

Melissa Bailey Photo 

They stood by Monday morning at the school at 115 Water St. as officials heralded the expansion of that program thanks to a $3 million donation from First Niagara Bank. The bank arrived downtown on April 18, replacing the former NewAlliance Bank in a controversial corporate takeover.

The donation brings First Niagara on board with businesses, philanthropists and local institutions that have rallied behind a new effort to improve city public schools. The donation, which will be spread out over three years, will be split evenly between Boost! , which adds social supports at schools, and a new partnership between Achievement First and New Haven Public Schools, where city teachers learn to be school leaders by training in both district and charter schools.

Boost! has been rolled out so far at five city schools, including Metropolitan Business Academy, which serves 350 kids in grades 9 to 12.

Boost! aims to help schools build “wraparound services” that tend to kids’ social and emotional needs. The goal is to have schools put as much an emphasis on those needs as on academics, said Laoise King, who left the school district to become the point person at United Way for the program. She said Boost! helps schools identify gaps in services, and provides grant money to not-for-profits to start new programs at schools.

At Metro, as the high school is affectionately called, that means Emily and Zaneta now stay after school every day for extracurricular activities.

They both picked up boxing for the first time, taking free classes from the new Elephant In The Room gym run by local boxing champ Devonne “Da Bomb” Canady.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” but finding the money was an obstacle, said Zaneta.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of confidence out of it,” said Emily.

“We really enjoy it,” said the best friends in unison.

About 10 students show up to each session, twice a week, they estimated. Besides boxing, they spend time in the Gavel Club, where they’re working on public speaking, and are soon to start a Higher Heights mentoring program.

Boost!‘s King said the 10-week boxing sessions are paid for by a “leverage fund” run by the United Way, that’s supposed to help schools establish new partnerships with not-for-profits.

Besides the after-school programming, Boost! has also fostered a new freshman class run by staff from the Post-Traumatic Stress Center (PTSC) on Edwards Street, which also runs orientation programs at the school.

Boost! is currently in place at five schools: Metro, Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School, Clinton Avenue School, Augusta Lewis Troup and Wexler-Grant. The half-million per year will go into the leverage fund, King said, to help foster similar programs at other schools.

Partnership Persists

The other half-million dollars per year will go to sustain the city’s new “residency program” with charter group Achievement First.


Mayor John DeStefano talks to Metro students.

Five teachers are getting trained through the program this year. They’re spending half of the year at AF-run charters and the second half at district schools to study best practices—click here to follow along with one of the residents, Jenny Clarino, on a day of “silent lunch” and classroom observations.

 The $941,000 program is currently being paid for with a mix of private and public money. The Buck Foundation has offered a $575,000 grant. The district has been paying the rest, including residents’ salaries, said Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries.

The intent all along has been to raise private money to fund the program for at least three years, Harries said. First Niagara’s donation means the district will no longer have to use public money to support the program, he said.

The grant “enables the partnership to happen without detracting from the core services” of the district, he said.

New Haven Public Schools has pledged to take on two more classes of four to six residents per year after this class, according to Harries.

Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo applauded his newest corporate partner.

“First Niagara may be new in town, but they’re quickly showing they’re a valuable part of the city,” said Mayo.

“We’re proud to join the team,” said First Niagara Vice-President Frank Polino. The donation follows a $7 million investment on Dec. 8 to the NAACP of New Haven.