Former Staff Spotlight: Maureen Holla

Former Higher Achievement Mentor and Executive Director

“Higher Achievement grabs your heart,” says former Executive Director Maureen Holla. Maureen joined Higher Achievement as an energetic mentor in 1993, and quickly realized that the time she spent with her scholars was changing her life, not just theirs. She says, “I felt like I was facilitating a literature class as much for me as for my students.  It was so worth it and important. I fell in love.”

Maureen heartily believes that middle school is an incredible time of growth for young people – and with that growth comes immense challenges. She explains, “They have so many ideas and questions as they begin to learn about themselves and the world. Everything is changing for them. They need someone else who isn’t their teacher or parent, who considers them an equal (not a love, or a job, or a responsibility) who can answer their questions objectively –someone who can be a mentor and a friend.”

Maureen was mentoring with Higher Achievement when the organization fell on challenging financial times in 1999 and had to close for a year. As Maureen explains, “There was a tremendous need and nothing to fill it when Higher Achievement closed.” So Maureen stepped up to lead the organization. With the support of board members Conrad Hipkins and Carlos Garcia, Maureen approached founding board member Joe Horning with an unusual offer. If Joe would provide six months of her salary, she would raise the rest.  With Joe’s support and Maureen’s hard work, they turned the organization around and re-launched as a national model for academic enrichment. Under Maureen’s leadership, Higher Achievement opened its first center in this new model with 30 students in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC.

Maureen served as Executive Director until 2006. During her tenure, Higher Achievement grew to four new Achievement Centers, including its first outside DC in Alexandria, Virginia. Her vision launched Higher Achievement’s first randomized controlled trial (RCT) study, which led to smartly-planned growth in new cities and its first national foundation investment. Also under her leadership, Higher Achievement was awarded several awards: the prestigious Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management, the Bank of America’s Neighborhood Builder’s Award, the national winner of Excellence in Summer Learning from Johns Hopkins University, and the NPower/Accenture Award for Nonprofit Innovation in Technology.

Even after serving as Executive Director, Maureen continued to be involved in Higher Achievement. From 2006-2008, Maureen served as the Chief Strategic Advisor and supported Higher Achievement’s national expansion by continuing her work on the RCT study, launching Higher Achievement Baltimore, and developing a new, growth-focused CEO named Richard Tagle.

While there are many program elements that deserve mention, to Maureen two stand out: “The effort scholars make and the rigor of Higher Achievement events: spelling bee, poetry and ambassador’s contest.” She continues, “Students who participated in those events got a real workout. For many, it’s the first time people saw beyond their age, race, and circumstance to test the intellect inside…fiercely test it. And the scholars loved it. They blossomed under the rigor and the extensive feedback. They weren’t “that poor kid” but a real hard-working talent that was pushed to the limit.”

There are many scholars that Maureen remembers fondly. But, she thinks most often of the scholars that didn’t make it through Higher Achievement, or that still continue to face incredible challenges. As she explains, “I wanted each scholar to have choice in life. Not to take what is left, but to choose their path based on their interest and merit.  Not all of them were able to choose. ”

Throughout her time with Higher Achievement, Maureen has seen the impact of the program on not just individual scholars, but entire communities. She describes these communities as filled with “armies” of former scholars who work to make their cities more inclusive for all. She explains, “I hope to see an army grounded in freedom, voice, solidarity and justice. I hope that this army is well positioned career-wise to make right what is wrong. I am enormously inspired by the Black Lives Matter campaign, and I hope that Higher Achievement scholars are smack dab in the middle of it.”

Maureen now works in Brazil as a Managing Partner at Onward! LLC, a consulting agency for nonprofits. When reflecting on Higher Achievement, she  says, “In my heart, I am a Higher Achievement scholar. It is the program I always wanted for myself and the one I want for my and everyone’s children.  I wouldn’t be me without Higher Achievement.”


In another 40 years, I see Higher Achievement and our country with an army of hard working talented young people grounded in American values of freedom, justice, solidarity and voice. And God willing, they will be running things.

If HA was a person, and celebrating their 40th birthday, what kind of party do you think they’d throw? It would look like a circus carnival with mind-blowing science and technology projects, a tent for jamming and slamming, a debate room with topics like in charades and loco math applied to astrophysics in the big tent. Right there–The Greatest Show On Earth before your very eyes!

And jugglers –I have always liked jugglers.

Imagine a world where every child has a chance to be part of a program like Higher Achievement: I can’t imagine what that world looks like.  Is it heaven? I can tell you this: I would worry a lot less about our planet, and all of its inhabitants big and small, if I knew every child was brought up with Higher Achievement.