At a time when good news is rarer than a mohel in Mecca, few things are as encouraging as the 31 teenagers here. Nearly all are low-income blacks and Hispanics in Harlem. Most occupy single-parent homes. The soft bigotry of low expectations would allow each to surrender, snarl at society, and settle for a life on the dole — or perhaps an even tougher spot on the American periphery.
Instead, 100 percent of these students graduated from local high schools in June (three quarters of them from government campuses). Across America, only 72 percent of high-school seniors graduated, while that number is just 65.5 percent elsewhere in New York City. Among these high-caliber kids, 98 percent will enter college, versus 68.3 percent of U.S. high school graduates, and 71 percent of Big Apple grads. These 31 youths were admitted to 105 different four-year colleges, 25 of which will welcome them soon.
These include, among others, Columbia, Fordham, Haverford, Howard, Middlebury, and Templeton. These students collectively scored $2.3 million in merit-based college scholarships, averaging some $74,000 each.
Too good to be true?
Actually, this is routine at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, a privately financed non-profit founded in 1989. HEAF's philosophy is: "No excuses. Every child can learn." It works its magic after school, providing enrichment, encouragement, mentoring, and other guidance to some 30 to 50 boys and girls annually, starting in sixth grade. HEAF selects students via grades, test scores, on-site writing exercises, and interviews with children and parents.
HEAF's extracurricular efforts train students to thrive in the world beyond Harlem
Sixth graders read George Orwell's Animal Farm to understand characters, plot, symbolism, and literary analysis.
An elective called Order in the Court introduces students to the legal system and advocacy, culminating in a mock trial.
Project Restaurant teaches business practices as HEAF's kids design their own eateries. Financiers, marketers, architects, and restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker of New York's Chez Josephine all share their lessons.
French, Chinese, and Japanese classes expand students' horizons and make them more desirable to college recruiters.
A HEAF delegation just returned from Belize after focusing on cultural preservation with Garifuna youth. Last year, a group visited Botswana to learn about teenagers orphaned by AIDS. Earlier, HEAF toured Northern Ireland to study its peace process.
HEAF also spends classroom time honing English and math, practicing for college-admissions tests, and perfecting university applications. HEAF graduates have become doctors, attorneys, professors, and military officers.
HEAF's participants and alumni are its most convincing spokesmen.
"HEAF made the college-application process a lot easier," says Teleah Slater, a Brandeis-bound graduate of New Explorations into Science, Technology, and Math High School, a government campus. "I had a lot of difficulty writing my personal statement. One of the staffers stayed about two hours after the office closed to talk with me about what I wanted to say and develop an outline, so I could get started."The Harlem resident continues: "HEAF always has been supportive, not just academically, but emotionally. Whenever you have a problem, they always arethere to help."
"As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, no one in my family knew much about American colleges or the education system," says a HEAF alumnus named Manny, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "HEAF was there for me as both a support group and a way of getting out of an insulated shell. If not for HEAF, I would not find myself at MIT today. I am the first in my family to go to college."
HEAF is the brainchild of Manhattan real-estate developer Daniel Rose. He laments that some consider underprivileged children "human bonsais, because external conditions have restrained their growth." Instead, Rose explains, "We want to help children grow to their full height . . . We are not selling an education, a degree, or a job. Our goal for each HEAF student is a life that is satisfying and fulfilling."
Deroy Murdock is a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.Murdock@gmail.com. Read more reports from Deroy Murdock — Click Here Now.
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