Harlem-Based Education Group Prepares Youth for College—and Graduation

The HEAF staff recruits from more than 150 schools—mostly in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—that have significant student populations that qualify for free or reduced lunch. Some students are nominated by their guidance counselors; others hear about HEAF at community board meetings, libraries, or by word-of-mouth.

To apply, students and their parents are interviewed, report cards and test scores are examined, and each student submits an essay. The HEAF staff must get a sense that the family can commit to the organization’s rigorous demands: middle schoolers accepted into the organization’s High Expectations program meet after school, on Saturdays, and for six weeks during the summer; as high schoolers in the College Quest program, they meet after school and on some Saturdays. But it isn’t all just math and English: The students are exposed to an engaging curriculum that includes robotics, roller-coaster design, art, film, photography, Chinese, Japanese—even the intricacies of running and managing a restaurant or writing a business plan.

Another important aspect of HEAF is its extensive youth development component. Studies show that it isn’t just academic smarts that helps people succeed—social and emotional development is crucial to school and career success, and every year HEAF students are taught things like social skills, decision making, and goal-setting—the things that don’t show up on a test but that, done poorly, can hamstring an otherwise bright, capable person for years. Character development, confidence, courage, ethical behavior are all covered, says McGee.

“We teach them how to understand and dissect media, the importance of community service, social identities, and how to confront, resist, and overcome peer pressure.”

Faust was introduced to HEAF through a friend at church, and she says she “loves the program.” L’Eunice started the organizations High Expectations program in the seventh grade and is now a high school senior applying to colleges such as Cornell, Princeton, and Colgate. She hopes to become a chemical engineer. Highlights of her HEAF years include writing, directing, editing, and producing a film that was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival; participating in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth for four summers; and participating as an ambassador on a service learning trip to Belize in Central America. All these doors opened for her through HEAF. She says, “HEAF pushes me to expect the best from myself and challenges me to evaluate whether I’ve given something my all.”

Faust says parents are sometimes asked to participate in bake sales or to sell chocolate or do other fundraising, but she insists there is no downside to being in HEAF.

“HEAF augmented my goals for my daughter and provided structure and support. She’s a bright girl who needed to be challenged, and the staff was there to mold her, guide her, and shape her.” She also credits HEAF’s positive energy, positive environment, even positive criticism with helping the students it serves to be the best they can be.

HEAF provides accelerated learning and enrichment experiences, not tutoring, says McGee. On a recent visit to the HEAF offices, the college emphasis is in-your-face—no subtle nudging here. The walls are nearly covered in pennants from schools like Cornell, Ithaca, and Dartmouth. Acceptance letters to HEAF students sheathed in protective plastic adorn other walls. On display are photos taken on trips to Mexico, Belize, Brazil, Senegal, Morocco, Northern Ireland, St. Vincent, Mississippi, and New Orleans—yes, HEAF provides opportunities to participate in travel and service learning trips to help students develop a global perspective. One poster reads: Are you well-spoken? Well-read? Well-traveled? Well-dressed? Well-balanced? Of that last one, McGee says, “You don’t want to be smart and weird.”

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