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Geoffrey Canada backs college scholarships to Wyandanch HS grads

Valley Stream resident and former Wyandanch High School

Valley Stream resident and former Wyandanch High School graduate Geoffrey Canada, center, greets President Barack Obama at Lehman College in the Bronx on May 4, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Eight college-bound Wyandanch Memorial High School graduates are getting scholarships from renowned education reformer and alumnus Geoffrey Canada, who said he wants them to know he cares about them and the high school.

The students will each receive $3,000 scholarships to help cover tuition and other college costs once they enroll, Paul Sibblies, the high school's principal, said Monday.

Canada, 63, who graduated from the high school in 1970 and founded the Harlem Children's Zone in Manhattan two decades later, said this year's total $24,000 in scholarships is something he wants to make an annual gift.

"I'm hoping to do this every year, my wife and I," said Canada, who lives in Valley Stream. "I want kids growing up in Wyandanch to be aware there are graduates who have done well and care about them and care about that high school."

Canada added he hoped it would inspire other African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color who have graduated from schools in minority communities to "give back, to be a visible presence in these schools . . . anything that says you're not forgotten."

He asked Sibblies to decide which students would receive the scholarships. "My sense is he and the school will know the kids who need it," Canada said.

The principal said students were chosen based on college acceptance, academic performance and recommendations from their guidance counselor.

Sibblies said he has spoken with Canada about educational issues for two or three years, and told him how some of the school's graduates were academically ready for college but lacked money. Canada, from longtime experience with the children's zone, knew well the plight of such students.

Two students who were notified during the last week of school that they had received the scholarships expressed excitement and relief.

"This scholarship helps me financially," said Jerrel Beeks, 18, who is headed for Suffolk County Community College in the fall, where he plans to study veterinary technology. "I was not sure I could pay for [things] like my books, or tuition or stuff I might need."

Similarly, Abdel Bessard, 19, said: "After I got the award I was very happy. I wasn't sure how I would pay for college." He's bound for Monroe College in New Rochelle, where he plans to study criminal justice.

The children's zone, also known as HCZ, has been lauded for its method of establishing a pipeline toward college by providing social services, health care and community-building support.

Canada said he and his wife, Yvonne, "have been thinking about how we can help make a difference. She knows how much Wyandanch means to me, in terms of giving me an escape from the South Bronx," where he lived as a child.

He said his mother sent him and his brothers to live with their grandparents in Wyandanch in the late 1960s. The move, he said, set him on the path to college.

Canada said he hopes Sibblies invites him to speak to seniors at the high school in the fall. He would tell them about "the high expectations I have for them and the way they represent leadership in that school," he said.

Canada stepped down last year as chief executive of Harlem Children's Zone, though he remains its president. He also is president of Promise Academy, which operates two charter schools in Harlem.

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