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‘Helping Smart Kids Get Smarter’

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by John O. Harney


‘Helping Smart Kids Get Smarter’

Increasingly educators are addressing ways to motivate high-potential students.

By John O. Harney

The top end of the education achievement gap is a chasm. Few Black and Hispanic students score over 1200 on the SAT, fewer enroll in selective colleges and fewer still earn advanced degrees. Yet education reforms and media attention focus overwhelmingly on the lower end of the divide, preoccupied with students meeting minimum standards. As Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told a recent gathering of more than 200 educators and students in Boston: “When we talk about the achievement gap, we rarely talk about helping smart kids get smarter.”

Hrabowski was preaching to the choir. His audience had gathered in a Boston hotel to talk about precisely that topic — how tough love, positive peer pressure and other strategies could be employed to increase the motivation of high-potential minority students and bridge the chasm at the top. The conference they attended, “Room at the Top: High Achievement for Students of Color,” was sponsored by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which supports academic achievement and educational opportunity for students in the six New England states.

For a group of educators seeking ways to help minority students succeed, Hrabowski’s personal story offered a powerful reminder of what is possible. He told the group how his mother had become intrigued with the private library of the White family that employed her as a maid in Alabama. The family allowed her to go into the library when her work was done, and in time, she became an insatiable reader. “The more she read, the better reader she became, and the better she read, the more she liked to read,” said Hrabowski. She also liked to motivate her son. “My mother told me, ‘You’re special, and you can be even better,’” he recalled.

In his career as an educator, Hrabowski has communicated that same message to countless students. When he assumed the UMBC presidency in 1992, not a single minority student had ever earned an A in any of the university’s upper-level science courses. Under his leadership, UMBC has set high expectations for minority students, provided intensive support and sent a powerful message to its students: “No goals are beyond your reach.” When he was vice provost, Hrabowski launched UMBC’s highly successful Meyerhoff Scholars education and mentoring program in 1988 to help Black men who excel in math and science do even better; the program was later opened to all students. Today, UMBC has more Black biochemistry graduates than any other undergraduate institution in the country. As Hrabowski reminded his audience in Boston, “There are many students of color who are achieving at very high levels, and many more could do so with the right kinds of support.”

Promoting High Achievement
But what are “the right kinds of support”? To examine that question further, the “Room at the Top” conference focused on a dozen school-based, after-school and summer academic programs supported by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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For five years, the foundation’s Minority High Achievement (MHA) initiative has supported efforts to increase the number of motivated New England minority students who achieve at high levels in secondary school and go on to attend and succeed at selective colleges and graduate programs. “The foundation’s strategy is ‘pull up from the top,’ rather than ‘push up from the bottom,’” said former senior program officer Jay Sherwin, who left the foundation in April after seven years to become vice president of The Education Financing Foundation of California. “We’re not trying to help all students do a little better. We want to grow the ‘leadership class’ of students of color and help them develop the skills and the clout to open doors for other students behind them.”

One foundation grantee, the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery Academy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, illustrates the core principles of the programs in the MHA initiative. SEED brings promising middle and high school students from largely low-income and minority schools in Lawrence, Boston and Cambridge, Mass., to MIT labs on Saturdays for hands-on learning. The program aims to further develop the math and science aptitude and the passion for learning that will help these students get into and succeed at selective universities. SEED also offers a life skills program focused on topics such as time management.

SEED looks for curious, tactile learners who have strong grades and high motivation to achieve in math and science. They are the kids who enjoy building things, and many of them are under-challenged in today’s urban schools. As SEED program coordinator Nicole Stark explained, “Some kids see a model train and look under the table to figure out how it’s working. Those are kids who aren’t engaged by looking at a blackboard all day.”

During the conference, students from several featured schools and programs made presentations or led discussions about academic achievement. One student, Mia Harvey, gushed about a project in which she and SEED classmates used archery to learn about engineering. “It was very different from school,” she said. “You had to put in so much more effort and expand your mind.” An audience member, perhaps sensing MIT’s vested interest in the success of SEED Academy graduates, asked if she would consider going to MIT herself. “Definitely,” Harvey answered. In the five-year history of the program, all but one SEED graduate has gone on to college, most of them pursuing science and engineering.

High achievement is defined differently by each program supported by the foundation. Unlike SEED, the Step Forward/Step Ahead/Quest Programs at Elms College in Chicopee, Mass., began by targeting moderately successful middle school students who show a “spark” — something intangible that program staff feel they can work with. “In this
case, it’s not like college admissions people recruiting ‘achievement,’ but rather they’re recruiting ‘potential,’” said Dr. Michael Nakkula, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He studied the Elms College programs and three others funded through the MHA initiative.

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Through Step Forward/Step Ahead/Quest, Elms College offers long-term, year-round programming including academic enrichment, fine arts, college-level courses and professional internships for nearly 200 middle and high school students from more than 20 area schools. Elms focuses on making the students believe they have it in them to succeed and graduate from college, said program coordinator Eileen Kirk. “It is all about becoming a ‘scholar’ and owning up to that title.”

Students join the programs thanks to external motivators such as college admissions incentives and scholarships, but eventually the desire to achieve becomes internalized. “Students begin to think,
‘I want to become like these people I’m working with,’” said Nakkula. “It’s when the motivation becomes internalized in this way that habits of high achievement take hold.”

For Steve Perry, the director of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., the biggest challenge is cultural. Capital Prep now offers Hartford-area students in grades six to 12 a rigorous year-round curriculum including courses for college credit. A majority of Capital Prep’s students come from homes where the highest level of achievement is high school. “Many of these students cannot read, but anyone can learn to read,” said Perry. “What’s much harder to overcome is unwillingness to learn or deeply rooted cultural messages that undercut the importance of education.”

One way that Capital Prep seeks to promote a culture of learning is by employing a group of parent advisors who encourage other parents to set high standards for themselves and their children. Several of these parents have decided to return to school themselves to further their own education. As Perry noted, “When mom has homework to do, too, it creates an atmosphere that helps her kids do theirs.”

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While they focus on college admission as their primary goal, the directors of programs for high-achieving minorities know that the challenges for their students don’t end when the acceptance letter arrives. Many talented minority students fail once they reach college, sometimes because of academic demands but often because they lack the social skills, life skills and other resources they need to thrive on campus. For that reason, the MHA initiative also supports programs that provide ongoing tutoring and advising to help minority students navigate the sometimes-foreign environment of a four-year college.

One of the support programs is the Consortium on High Achievement and Success, or CHAS, a collaboration between 34 selective liberal arts colleges working together to improve minority student success and satisfaction on their campuses. Another is the Scholars of the 21st Century program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which provides minority first-year students with a small-group learning environment and individualized attention — assets that are often missing at a large university. The Scholars program also offers an opportunity for students to conduct individual research projects, with doctoral students in the Department of Afro-American Studies serving as their mentors. Ninety percent of the freshmen who participate in the program return to the university as sophomores — a much higher retention rate than is normal for UMass students, White or minority.

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Even with positive interventions like CHAS or the Scholars program, minority students continue to face serious obstacles to achievement. On many campuses, minority students see few role models who look like them among their professors. Or they may encounter professors or other students who ask them explicitly or implicitly “to speak for their race” in classroom discussions — a burden White students don’t face.

One of the sessions at the “Room at the Top” conference focused on keys to college success. Wheaton College economist and associate provost Gordon Weil observed that an important difference between high school and college is the demand for more personal responsibility. Erika Smith, who directs the Transitional Year Program at Brandeis University, added that college requires students to adjust to an
entirely different set of expectations.

Jacqueline DaSilva, a young Cape Verdean woman who made the leap from Boston’s Madison Park High School to Bryn Mawr College, can relate.

“I ran Madison Park, and now here I am at Bryn Mawr with a professor telling me my writing sucks,” she said.

Many experts agree that creating relationships with professors is critical for the success of college students. Some suggest that students feel a sense of entitlement about such relationships and conversations. DaSilva, a beneficiary of an MHA program, for example, hounded her professors relentlessly.

Elite suburban campuses like Bryn Mawr offer a particular challenge for minority students from urban environments. “A lot of times, urban kids who go to college feel like they have to lose part of themselves,” said DaSilva. “I thought I had to be a Bryn Mawr woman, but I learned there are lots of different kinds of Bryn Mawr women.” The Bryn Mawr experience was very different, she said, from an urban campus like Northeastern University, where at least a few students from lower-income Boston neighborhoods are present on campus. Moreover, DaSilva said she learned that diversity means more than race. “When I got to Bryn Mawr, I met Black people who were rich and were not like me,” she said.

If there is one over-arching lesson to be learned from the MHA initiative, it is that all students are capable of reaching their full potential when provided with proper support.

Still, one major challenge remains: how to serve large numbers of minority students, not just the fortunate few. In the vernacular of the budding scientists at SEED Academy, the goal is to “scale up” and institutionalize the kind of support that could help more minority students excel. Perhaps those talented young people participating in these programs will be the engineers of change who help make that possible.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education, formerly Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education. This article is excerpted from a longer article Harney wrote for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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