Politics & Policy

Lifting Urban Youth to Towering Heights

Demanding high standards, solid performance, and excellent citizenship works.

Manhattan real-estate developer Daniel Rose erects skyscrapers for a living. Fittingly, he is passionate about an organization he launched that helps promising young Americans build solid foundations so they can rise to towering heights.

The Harlem Educational Activities Fund recently marked its 20th anniversary with a rooftop gala at Fifth Avenue’s St. Regis Hotel. While CNN host Fareed Zakaria and non-profit activist Judith Aidoo were the evening’s honorees, the real stars were HEAF’s scholars. These lower-income, mainly minority kids from Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are exactly the sort of young people on whom too many give up. “Why even bother?” argue those who allege that oppression, poverty, and racism are impermeable barriers, rather than manageable speed bumps.

“We have so much to celebrate,” Rose explains. While 73.2 percent of twelfth-graders nationwide graduate on time, “100 percent of our students graduate from high school, and 95 percent graduate college within six years, compared with about 35 percent for black and Latino students nationally.” Among HEAF’s college graduates, “35 percent go on to get a master’s degree or more, compared with a national average of 9 percent for all Americans. HEAF works to break the cycle of poverty by paving the path of academic achievement.”

#ad#Among HEAF’s 27-member class of 2009, 100 percent enrolled in four-year colleges, including Cornell, DePauw, and Syracuse. They earned more than $1.4 million in merit-based awards. One Nigerian-born student scored a Gates Millennium Scholarship. His University of Rochester education and subsequent graduate degree will be financed completely by Bill Gates.

“We become the vehicle through which they learn to succeed,” says HEAF trustee Woody Heller, “and not by magic or grade inflation, but by hard work, diligent and directed study, enriched by our support, encouragement, and counseling.” Since its inception, HEAF has benefitted some 10,000 young people.

Last year, HEAF served 342 sixth-to-twelfth graders, largely in government schools, plus 90 college students. These strivers enter HEAF with report cards at or near grade-level. Gifted kids and the learning disabled can get other help; HEAF targets promising students in the grade curve’s upwardly mobile middle who otherwise might be overlooked.

After school and on weekends, HEAF offers intense tutoring, mentoring, assistance with entering elite high schools, and college preparation. Cultural enrichment includes violin lessons, etiquette, public speaking, alternative-dispute-resolution classes, and summer camp. Sixteen HEAF students visited Belfast in July 2008 to study Northern Ireland’s peace process. Also, a HEAF senior won first place in the 2009 New York Mock Trial Competition. HEAF turns diamonds in the rough into sparkling gems worthy of Harry Winston, just steps from the St. Regis.

Sean Scott, M.D., is a physician in Philadelphia’s public-health department. HEAF helped him advance from public assistance in Harlem to Yale University, and then Yale Medical School. “HEAF did provide that safety net that I believed I needed, so that I wouldn’t fall through the cracks,” he says. “Whatever we were lacking, they were willing to fill in. It seemed like a dream come true.

“Before HEAF, I was this naïve girl living in a bubble, but HEAF made me look in the mirror,” says Octavia Smith, a Cathedral High School senior and Bronx resident. “I definitely would not have matured as quickly as I have, if it were not for HEAF. . . . Academically, I would have failed chemistry and probably Spanish, and would not have been the least bit upset by it.” Instead, Smith says, “I take AP [Advanced Placement] biology, AP psychology, and AP English, along with other honors classes.” She also is applying to some ten colleges, chief among them: Vassar, William and Mary, and Georgetown.

“If it were not for HEAF, I would be a senior in high school with no idea what was going to happen after the school year,” says Harlem’s own Justin Knox, who attends Humanities Preparatory Academy. “I would have been a different person focused on the wrong things.” Instead, Knox is track for college in 2010.

Since 1989, HEAF barely has taken government money. It only has accepted $192,000 under a four-year contract with the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development’s Out-of-School-Time Program, $4,000 from New York State for “Smart Board” teaching technology, plus $3,500 from the New York City Council’s discretionary fund.

HEAF’s $2.2 million annual budget relies overwhelmingly on private contributions, including some $600,000 raised September 30 at the St. Regis. Time-Warner and New York Life Foundation have granted HEAF more than $300,000 each, while Bank of America and the Carnegie Corporation donated $200,000 apiece.

HEAF rejects all the tired excuses for failure and instead demands high standards, solid performance, and excellent citizenship. Moving from the mantra “Engage/Educate/Elevate,” HEAF aims to “Expand/Expand/Expand.” It plans to deploy its model to heal so much that ails government education and, more broadly, America’s ghettos and barrios. HEAF chair Alexandra Korry states it crisply: “As long as the public schools fail us, HEAF will be there doing its part.” 

Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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