Thursday, January 07, 2010

REACH program and touching story:

As long-time readers of my emails know, I co-founded the Rewarding Achievement Scholarship Challenge (REACH) program, an innovative incentive scholarship program that seeks to help high-achieving low-income and minority students succeed academically in high school, go to good colleges, and earn four-year college degrees. Entering its third year of operation in New York City, REACH has supported the work of over 10,000 students and their teachers at 28 participating NYC inner-city high schools.  It's the largest scholarship program of its kind and is really working: last year, the number of AP exams passed at our schools rose 19%, driven by a 26% gain by black and Latino students.


REACH Scholar Awards are the core of the program: for each AP exam they pass, students at participating high schools receive $300, $400 or $500 in cash for each passing score of 3, 4 or 5, respectively.  But REACH is more than just financial incentives for students: we provide professional development for over 100 AP teachers and make cash grants to classrooms based on student performance.  We also help students pass AP exams via a program called Learn, Earn, Win!, which is three full days of intensive workshops (all Saturdays in the spring; 21 hours of total instruction), taught by AP experts from around the country, for each of 15 AP exams.  Last year, 70% of eligible students participated and they passed at a 39% rate vs. only 17% among those who didn't.


I've posted a slide presentation about REACH at:


I'm telling you this about REACH for three reasons:


A) This year's LEW kicks off on Saturday morning, January 16th from 9-10am (before the classes start) at Baruch College (55 Lexington Ave., x24th St).  As he's done every year, Joel Klein will be there to welcome the students and make a few remarks.  If you'd like to see some of the hardest working students in NYC, please join me there – just RSVP to Cori Okabayashi at;


B) We're always looking for board members and mentors to help our students with their college applications, so if you're interested in getting involved, please let me know; and


C) I wanted to share with you the amazing story of one of our REACH Scholars, Angel Batista, who I helped with his college essays and who was just accepted early to MIT!  He attends Harlem's Frederick Douglass Academy, which is an incredible school (I love high-performing schools of ALL types, not just charters!) under the long-time leadership of Principal Gregory Hodge (I've previously written about FDA's AP European History teacher, Fred Murphy, whom I call the Jaime Escalante of NYC (, and AP Statistics teacher Jane Viau, whom I may soon have to call the Jaimita Escalante of NYC – LOL! (here's an article about her I sent around recently:


Before I tell you Angel's story, let me tell you how and why I met him.  Last year, we looked at where the 800 or so seniors at REACH schools who passed AP exams went to college.  We discovered that 36 (4.5%) matriculated at top 30 schools (we picked the top 20 national universities and top 10 liberal arts colleges, as ranked by US News & World Report).  Here are some statistics about these 36 students (for more data, see page 13 of the presentation at 33 were black/Latino, only 9 were male, 32 were poor (defined as family income under $55,000) and 35 received full-ride scholarships.  Academically, 34 had GPAs of 90 or better yet every single one had BOTTOM QUARTILE SAT scores for the schools at which they were accepted.  So how did they overcome these poor SAT scores?  AP exams.  35 of the 36 students had taken an AP exam prior to their senior year, with 32 (89%) earning passing scores. 


THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT FINDING: Passing a non-foreign-language AP exam prior to senior year appears to be the ticket for low-income, minority students to get into top colleges and universities.


So then we looked at the roughly 400 juniors who passed AP exams last year and found many, based on their AP exam scores, that we thought would be good candidates for top colleges.  For example, as noted on the slide above, 61 black or Latino male sophomores or juniors scored a 4 or better on a non-foreign language/literature AP exam. 


We also learned, however, that these students were often aiming too low when applying to colleges, in part because they didn't know better and in part because they were receiving terrible college guidance.  We found students with 5s on TWO math/science AP exams who were being told to apply only to SUNY and CUNY schools.  This is of course madness, so we created a new part of our program called REACH Forward, which involved two main elements: A) A full-day specially-tailored college admissions information session taught, pro bono, by Dr. Michele Hernandez and Mimi Doe of Hernandez College Consulting.  They provided 175 REACH students with critical information, an inside perspective on the admissions process at the nation's most selective schools, and encouragement to apply to top schools. The day also included an SAT prep session taught by IvyBound.  (Thank you Michele, Mimi and IvyBound!)  B) We provided 75 of the most promising REACH students mentors who assisted them in the college application process, especially with essays. 


I was one of these mentors and was paired with Angel, whom I have never met, but I feel like I know him based on the many essays of his I've read and edited.  Here are two of the essays I helped him with that helped earn him admission to MIT (shared with his permission):

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

            As a youth, my cousins and I spent our days playing together in the Dominican Republic, a beautiful island with magnificent scenery. We caught wild chickens with homemade traps and found creative ways to knock down coconuts. As we grew older, however, our idyllic world changed slowly but inexorably and more and more of my cousins turned into hopeless souls.

            Every time I went back to the Dominican Republic, I received the depressing news that another one of my cousins had dropped out of school, turned to drugs, and/or joined a gang.  The dreadful schools they attended failed to educate them properly or instill in them any sense of optimism, so they gave up on the world -- and the world gave up on them.

            So how did I escape this trap and why am I now on my way to success in college and in life?  It's not because I was born smarter – my cousins have the same genes as I.  The answer is simple: unlike my cousins, I was given a fighting chance.  My family moved to the United States, the land of opportunity (it sounds corny to say it, but it's true), and I was fortunate enough to attend schools where a bright, ambitious, hard-working kid could get a great education.

I am where I am today mainly because I am standing on the shoulders of many teachers who saw my potential, invested in me and helped me achieve my dreams.  Someday I hope to become a teacher or perhaps start a mentoring organization so I can help the next generation of kids – especially low-income, minority ones – follow in my footsteps.

Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

            Where do I start?  I was born and spent my early years in a third-world country, English is not my first language, few people in my extended family graduated from high school, much less college, and I was raised by a single mother.  Even after I moved to the land of opportunity, I grew up in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of it, Harlem, a place where the streets aren't safe (I've experienced gang violence and been mugged four times).  I realize this all sounds like a cliché, but my entire life has been a significant challenge and few things have gone according to plan.

In my environment, being tough is valued much more than being smart. In school, gangs and drugs were cool, so my commitment to academic excellence made me a constant target, my school's "nerd." Whether it was someone looking to make a joke or who needed to show just how "hood" they were, I was the perfect scapegoat.

            There were times when I wanted to quit. I remember once asking my mother to let me drop out of school like she did. She scolded me for even having the thought and told me she never had a choice about staying in school. I, on the other hand, was considering giving up school for a foolish reason: because I faced social challenges and often felt alone.

            Her lecture made me think hard.  Her life was full of hardship, but because she never gave up, even when things didn't go her way (which was often), she was able to provide enough to give me the chance to succeed. In light of her sacrifices, who the hell was I to give up and take the easy route?  The lifestyle led by my classmates seemed to be one full of pleasures: hanging out, goofing off, having good times with no worries, not studying for tests, and skipping classes on a whim.  I suppose kids from wealthy families can get away with this behavior during their youth and still end up okay, but kids from my background don't have any margin for error.  I knew that if I were to along with what was popular, fun and easy, I would end up being nothing in life – a disaster for me and a cruel betrayal of all of my mother's sacrifices. It was hard, but I stayed on track and am proud to be a nerd.

Stories like Angel's give me goose bumps – only in America – but also infuriate me.  Why can't EVERY inner-city public school be like FDA and provide ALL students the opportunities Angel had?!  Why must a dozen or more students from similar backgrounds as Angel crash and burn for each one who soars?!


Part of the answer lies in the generally horrible schools our nation provides for low-income, minority students – this is the shame of our nation – but, in fairness, it's not all schools, which leads me to my next topic…

 Subscribe in a reader