Higher Achievement in Richmond Magazine: “I Want to Be Better”

‘I Want to Be Better’ :

A bright future awaits these kids, but first they have to get through middle school.

by Melissa Scott Sinclair

Richmond Magazine

On a recent Tuesday, R&B music echoes through the hallways of Binford Middle School as students switch classes. Air conditioning units hum loudly in the century-old building.

A hand-written sign on the door of the math room says, “Whoever prescribes the diameter of your knowledge will control the circumference of your activity and advancement in life. Reach for more!! Then reach for more.” Inside, students are bent over notebooks, learning how to decompose fractions.

Outside, summer beckons, but the kids are quiet and focused. These Richmond middle schoolers willingly spend six precious weeks of summer studying so that they can supercharge the next school year — and maybe the rest of their lives.

This is the Summer Academy run by Higher Achievement Richmond. The nonprofit, which also operates in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Pittsburgh, prepares underserved students for a rigorous high school and college experience. Locally, Higher Achievement partners with three Richmond Public Schools middle schools — Binford, Boushall and Henderson — to recruit students for the free program. Middle school is the last, best chance to get kids excited about learning, Higher Achievement believes.

The kids who participate don’t have to have perfect grades, explains Christa Coleman, the Richmond director of programs. Instead, “we get kids who say, ‘I want to be better.’ ”

Staff want to know: Have the students demonstrated academic improvement over time? Is their attendance good? Most importantly, are they motivated? Higher Achievement asks its scholars to commit 475 hours to the program each year (including after-school mentoring and summer programs).

It’s a sacrifice. Twelve-year-old Romero says that if he weren’t in the Summer Academy, he’d spend his summer “chilling at home. Not waking up at 6 a.m.”

But the rising eighth grader says it’s worth it. “When I first came here, I was horrible in math. I hated it. I didn’t want to do it.” Two summers ago, that started to change. “I got so much better at math, math is now my favorite subject. … I just, like, stepped up.”

He and fellow scholar My’Glasha, a rising sixth grader, have both become enthusiastic ambassadors for the program. “Higher Achievement is really fun, and if you are struggling in a certain thing, like you’re struggling with math, science, history, something like that, come here,” My’Glasha says. “Because they’ll help you, and you’ll get straight A’s.”

“And — this is personal for me — if you’re bored over the summer, you can come,” Romero adds, “’cause when I get bored, I get in trouble.” Not “serious, serious” trouble, he clarifies.

It’s not all hard work. Students can participate in their favorite electives, such as dance, sports, drama and film, and suggest Friday field trips, like bowling and Putt-Putt.

The highlight of the summer is visiting Virginia colleges. This year, rising fifth graders are seeing Virginia Union University. Sixth graders spend the day at Virginia State University, seventh graders tour Longwood University, and eighth graders visit James Madison University.

“It looked like a high school on the inside,” Romero says of last year’s visit to Old Dominion University.

That’s exactly what Higher Achievement wants students to realize. “A lot of times, college seems so intimidating to our scholars,” Coleman says. But if they see the campus, they can envision themselves there, “so they can say, ‘Hey, I can do this. I want to do this.’ ”

Higher Achievement has only been in Richmond since 2011, so data is not yet available on college matriculation and graduation for their scholars. However, a long-term study of the Washington, D.C., program found that students enrolled in Higher Achievement outperformed their peers on standardized tests, especially in math, and were more likely to enter a competitive high school and earn a diploma.

Rising eighth graders like Romero are coached through the application process for Richmond’s top-tier schools and programs, places like Open High School, Community High School and the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. Coleman wants all her scholars, regardless of where they go, to start high school with strong academic and social skills.

One student last year told Coleman that in Higher Achievement, “he just learned how to keep trying.” Nothing is more important, she says, “because we can’t fill all the gaps in a six-week program, but if we can change an attitude toward learning, then that can bridge some of the gaps when they go back to school.”

The key is finding teachers and mentors who relish working with the preteen and young teenage crowd. “Middle school is a special, special place. Not everybody’s up to it,” Coleman says. For years, she taught middle school in San Diego and Atlanta with the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of charter schools.

As a teacher, Coleman says, you soon learn that you can’t expect middle school students to do what you say just because you said so. They have budding self-confidence and a pressing need for autonomy. “You’ve got to find a way to kind of get out of their way and allow them to give and learn in their space.”

Find a way to connect with them, she says, and they’ll willingly come with you. “They’re brilliant, really. You just want to help them grow through all of their stuff so you can bring out all that brilliance.”

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