Higher Achievement tries to start path to success in middle school

November 14, 2012

Fifth-grader Shayne Burton didn’t know the right words to define “boogie.”

Tasked with translating vernacular phrases into standard English, the Higher Achievement scholar finally decided on “dancing weird.”

Only one question remained:

“Can I write in bubble letters?” the 10-year-old District resident asked her mentor.

Shayne was getting a literature lesson at the Center City Public Charter Schools’ Capitol Hill campus through Higher Achievement, a local nonprofit organization that provides free, year-long, out-of-school academic support to underprivileged middle-school students. It’s an effort to help them get into the best high schools and colleges.

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“Talent is everywhere,” said Lynsey Wood Jeffries, Higher Achievement’s D.C. metro executive director. “It’s not just in certain Zip codes.”

The D.C. metro chapter of Higher Achievement, which also has programs in Baltimore, Richmond and Pittsburgh, is one of six area groups to receive grants from The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund that supports Washington area nonprofit organizations. The organizations operate programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

The $30,000 grant will underwrite the cost of new online resources for the student scholars and help to increase training for staff and volunteers.

“The technology and the training actually work well together,” Jeffries said.

The middle-school years are an important time in a student’s life, Jeffries said, and often an indicator of how well a student will cope with the work in college.

Higher Achievement tries to harness that period with an extra 650 hours of learning a year for students. The average grade-point average for students entering the program is 2.5, but it increases to 3.5 upon completion, Jeffries said.

Scholars begin the program in fifth or sixth grade and continue until eighth grade, when Higher Achievement helps them apply to high schools. There are six Higher Achievement centers in the Washington area — in Wards 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 and Alexandria.

The students attend the program three times a week during the school year and five days a week during the summer, and they also go on a college visit. They work with volunteer mentors on math, literature and special seminar topics in addition to their regular schoolwork.

Stuart-Hobson Middle School eighth-grader Kenneth Brewer, 13, is a Boy Scout, basketball player, school peer mediator, brown belt in karate and Higher Achievement scholar. He’s planning to study law in college. How does he find the time to do it all?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Immediately when I get home, I go straight to my bed.”

Next summer will be Kenneth’s first since sixth grade without the rigorous Higher Achievement program.

“Every year, I’ve learned something new,” he said. “But this summer, I’m sleeping till 12.”

Center City fifth-graders Shayne and her friend Jasmine Campbell have several summers to go.

In October, the girls tackled a vocabulary work sheet littered with words including “unabridged” and “grammatical” at the Ward 6 Higher Achievement Center, with the help of literature mentor Damian Fagon, 25.

Shayne decides she’s going to make up her own language, all about space, instead. She wants to be an astronaut when she grows up.

“It all starts here,” Fagon said, trying to bring Shayne’s attention back to the work sheet.

For more stories on Washington Post Charities grant recipients, go to washingtonpost.com/community-relations/charitable-giving.

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