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.’”
“HEAF made the college-application process a lot easier,” explains 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 are there to help.”
“If it weren’t for HEAF and its great staff, I wouldn’t be attending Syracuse University,” says Kwame Phipps, who already has started there after graduating from All Hallows High School, a Catholic school in the Bronx run by the Christian Brothers order. “I heard about Syracuse University, but never had seen it in person until my junior year on the annual HEAF Junior College Tour. Once I saw the university, I knew this is where I wanted to be.” He adds: “HEAF always offered their services whenever I was in need, from one-on-one help to get my college list organized the summer before my senior year to providing free SAT classes to help boost my score. Without these things, the idea of attending college never would have been possible.”
“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. The graduate of the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering, a government institution, continues: “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.”
“In this era of tight budgets, extracurricular activities are the first to be cut,” says Charles Sahm, deputy director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership. “HEAF is a model for how non-profits can fill the void and add new energy and ideas to the education mix.”
HEAF is the brainchild of Manhattan real-estate developer Daniel Rose. He has prospered by building and managing properties throughout Gotham. Sitting in his Madison Avenue conference room, beneath a painting of a skyscraper under construction, Rose 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. If they have it in their capacity, we want to help them develop their full potential.”
He also stresses that HEAF does not merely pat students on their backs, regardless of achievement. It demands and generates excellence.
“We don’t promulgate self-esteem,” Dan Rose smiles. “We inculcate self-confidence to achieve tasks for which we help students prepare. 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.”
— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a Fox News contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.