Harlem-Based Education Group Prepares Youth for College—and Graduation

Many of us found adolescence difficult to navigate but got through it, not just with the help of our anguished parents but because of the network of extended family, church friends, scout leaders, and teachers who stepped in and, very often, said the same things our parents were saying but in a way that we heard and responded to. In effect, the proverbial “village” came through for us.

Lynette Faust believes “it takes a village to raise a child,” and that the Harlem Educational Activities Fund has been part of the village that’s helped her to successfully raise her daughter, L’Eunice.

An exceptionally bright child who learned to read at an unusually early age, L’Eunice hit a “rough patch” in her teens.

“Teenagers today are exposed to so much and have so many distractions,” Faust says. “She tried to assert her own authority and had some difficulty adjusting, but HEAF supported us through that.”

By affirming the values her daughter received at home, and by providing a nurturing, supportive environment, L’Eunice emerged unscathed.

“HEAF constantly reinforces your goals, aspirations, and expectations,” Faust says. “You go to HEAF, you go to college.”

HEAF is a nonprofit organization that helps high-potential, underserved black and Hispanic students in New York City prepare for, enter, and graduate from college.

Based in Harlem, HEAF was started in 1989 by Daniel and Joanna Rose, a husband-and-wife team that taught in a low-income middle school in the Bronx. The Roses noted that, although they had worked with high-performing students, none of them went on to the city’s specialized high schools. Admission to these schools requires students to pass the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. (This is the same test the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a federal civil rights complaint about in September because the number of black and Hispanic children in the city’s specialized high schools is so small.) The Roses decided to test their hypothesis: that given the right support and guidance middle school students with potential could be accepted into the city’s most competitive high schools. The Roses were right.

What began as a program serving eighth-graders has over the years expanded to the 10-year continuum HEAF is today. Starting with rising sixth-graders, HEAF begins exposing youngsters to a “college-going culture,” as McGee puts it.

“We provide the social and emotional support and the academic content. We show them how to make good decisions, how to develop smart networks. We give them opportunities to explore leadership and to take on leadership roles.”

HEAF recruits middle school students who’ve been provided a solid educational foundation, but who aren’t necessarily academic stars.  “We look for the B- student, those who are in ‘the forgotten middle,’” says McGee, “but they must be on grade level in all their subjects.”

The HEAF staff recruits from more than 150 schools—mostly in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—that have significant student populations that qualify for free or reduced lunch. Some students are nominated by their guidance counselors; others hear about HEAF at community board meetings, libraries, or by word-of-mouth.

To apply, students and their parents are interviewed, report cards and test scores are examined, and each student submits an essay. The HEAF staff must get a sense that the family can commit to the organization’s rigorous demands: middle schoolers accepted into the organization’s High Expectations program meet after school, on Saturdays, and for six weeks during the summer; as high schoolers in the College Quest program, they meet after school and on some Saturdays. But it isn’t all just math and English: The students are exposed to an engaging curriculum that includes robotics, roller-coaster design, art, film, photography, Chinese, Japanese—even the intricacies of running and managing a restaurant or writing a business plan.

Another important aspect of HEAF is its extensive youth development component. Studies show that it isn’t just academic smarts that helps people succeed—social and emotional development is crucial to school and career success, and every year HEAF students are taught things like social skills, decision making, and goal-setting—the things that don’t show up on a test but that, done poorly, can hamstring an otherwise bright, capable person for years. Character development, confidence, courage, ethical behavior are all covered, says McGee.

“We teach them how to understand and dissect media, the importance of community service, social identities, and how to confront, resist, and overcome peer pressure.”

Faust was introduced to HEAF through a friend at church, and she says she “loves the program.” L’Eunice started the organizations High Expectations program in the seventh grade and is now a high school senior applying to colleges such as Cornell, Princeton, and Colgate. She hopes to become a chemical engineer. Highlights of her HEAF years include writing, directing, editing, and producing a film that was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival; participating in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth for four summers; and participating as an ambassador on a service learning trip to Belize in Central America. All these doors opened for her through HEAF. She says, “HEAF pushes me to expect the best from myself and challenges me to evaluate whether I’ve given something my all.”

Faust says parents are sometimes asked to participate in bake sales or to sell chocolate or do other fundraising, but she insists there is no downside to being in HEAF.

“HEAF augmented my goals for my daughter and provided structure and support. She’s a bright girl who needed to be challenged, and the staff was there to mold her, guide her, and shape her.” She also credits HEAF’s positive energy, positive environment, even positive criticism with helping the students it serves to be the best they can be.

HEAF provides accelerated learning and enrichment experiences, not tutoring, says McGee. On a recent visit to the HEAF offices, the college emphasis is in-your-face—no subtle nudging here. The walls are nearly covered in pennants from schools like Cornell, Ithaca, and Dartmouth. Acceptance letters to HEAF students sheathed in protective plastic adorn other walls. On display are photos taken on trips to Mexico, Belize, Brazil, Senegal, Morocco, Northern Ireland, St. Vincent, Mississippi, and New Orleans—yes, HEAF provides opportunities to participate in travel and service learning trips to help students develop a global perspective. One poster reads: Are you well-spoken? Well-read? Well-traveled? Well-dressed? Well-balanced? Of that last one, McGee says, “You don’t want to be smart and weird.”

Ninety-two percent of HEAF eighth-graders took the New York City Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, and 10% were accepted into specialized high schools—the most competitive schools in the city; 62% were accepted into other selective, screened schools—including early college high schools whose students graduate with an associate degree as well as a high school diploma. Still others were accepted into selective programs within high schools.

“These are all competitive, HEAF-approved programs vetted by data from the Department of Education,” McGee says, “that will prepare our students to successfully complete four-year colleges.”

College juniors and seniors can compete for admission to a HEAF fellows program that involves a week-long series of informational interviews with leaders from the for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors, says McGee. Through these interviews the students make contacts in areas such as media and finance that can lead to a range of experiences, including internships.

According to 23-year-old alums Yinette Fernandez, an investment governance business analyst at a top investment bank, and Kamal Bryan, a professional intern who assists with the research of and communication with child welfare organizations in New York state, HEAF prepared them well for college, academically and in terms of time management skills.

“HEAF also has its own scholarships,” says Bryan, “and the staff help you with the scholarship application process.” Both Fernandez and Bryan are still involved with HEAF on an informal basis.

At its recent annual benefit dinner, HEAF raised more than $1 million. The organization receives 600 applications a year and now serves 500 students in sixth grade through college. With greater funding, it hopes to serve more.

Luminaries present included astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson and noted columnist and best-selling author Fareed Zakaria; deGrasse Tyson and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the acclaimed scholar and Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, serve on HEAF’s board.

A HEAF student at the dinner may have paid the organization one of its highest compliments: Mervyn Larrier, now a high school senior who plans to pursue biomedical engineering and is applying to Johns Hopkins, Drexel, and Rensselaer, put it succinctly: “HEAF teaches you not to give up.”  For more about HEAF, go to www.heaf.org.

article by Robin White Goode via blackenterprise.com


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