At a time when good news is rarer than a mohel in Mecca, few things are as encouraging as 31 teenagers here. Nearly all are low-income blacks and Hispanics in Harlem. Most live in single-parent households. The soft bigotry of low expectations might 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-school campuses). Across America, only 72 percent of high-school seniors graduated, while that number is just 65.5 percent in New York City’s government schools. 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 Temple. 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 supplemental-learning organization founded in 1989. (For further statistics on how HEAF matches up, see the nearby chart.) HEAF’s philosophy is: “No excuses. Every child can learn.” It works its magic after school and on weekends, 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 impart their wisdom.
Chinese, French, 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. They turned interviews with locals into a podcast and film. 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.
“My mom expects me to go to college, and being a part of HEAF is helping me to meet that expectation,” says a Manhattan Village Academy junior named Kevin. The government-school student continues, “Like my T-shirt says: ‘Come to HEAF, go to college.’”