In her cramped Northeast Washington office last month, Higher Achievement's executive director, Maureen Holla, practiced a speech touting the successes of her organization the way she tackles everything: with focus, facts and methodical preparation.
At first, she read slowly from a text. But as her enthusiasm took over and as the words became more familiar, her pace picked up. Soon she was not even glancing at the text as she barreled through her pitch to potential donors.
"Summer is 8 to 4, five days a week, with classes in math, science, social studies and literature every day," she said. "It's breakfast, it's quiet reading, it's field trips every Friday." She barely paused for breath -- which, associates say, is pretty much how Holla approaches anything to do with Higher Achievement.
Holla, 36, took over the 30-year-old program in 1999 when it was at its nadir -- broke and close to shutting down for good. Local lawyer Carlos Garcia, a board member, recruited Holla, who had been a Higher Achievement volunteer for several years.
"She was visionary, she was passionate about education but also about this program," Garcia said. "She loved this little program. She had seen it work. She had seen into its soul, and she wanted it to survive and thrive."
But it took some doing. When Higher Achievement's board first brought Holla on board after shutting down the program, it had to rustle up a donor to fork over $50,000 to pay for Holla's salary and operating expenses until she got her fundraising machine cranking.
Since then, the program's enrollment has grown more than tenfold and its annual income has increased from $98,000 to $1.7 million. It plans to open a center in Alexandria next summer and move into Prince George's County after that. Within five years, Holla wants to triple the size of the organization to accommodate 1,000 children.
Associates say Holla has approached the organization methodically, meticulously analyzing the children's academic performance and then tweaking and twisting the curriculum and the program. She uses the results to squeeze more funding from organizations that are eager to see children's academic performance improve. The District's Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. gave it $135,000 last year. The remainder came mostly from private sources, including the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Freddie Mac Foundation.
Supporters say her frenetic brand of enthusiasm has fueled Higher Achievement's astonishing comeback. Rail thin, she's constantly on the move, and she sprinkles her conversation with phrases like "rock on" and "groovy" and with snatches of Spanish.
"It's like cozying up to a whirlwind," said Susan Willens, an English professor at George Washington University and a member of Higher Achievement's board of directors for the past four years.
Holla, who is fluent in Spanish and conversant in French and Sicilian, grew up as one of nine children in a close-knit Italian American family in a remote outpost of western New York. After working at Kodak for several years, negotiating deals for the company's involvement with the Olympics, Holla worked at Washington area nonprofit organizations before joining Higher Achievement.
At a recent luncheon meeting at the downtown law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Holla launched into her carefully rehearsed pitch. She was seeking to raise $1 million for Higher Achievement's expansion.
It was a meeting of a panel of the organization's biggest individual donors, the President's Council, and members had brought friends to try to interest them in contributing.
"Research calls this age group the last best chance for a future with college," Holla said as a PowerPoint presentation with a graph and charts detailing Higher Achievement's progress flashed on a screen. "Your development at the end of eighth grade determines whether or not you go to college. A college degree eliminates poverty from your bloodline."
Other Higher Achievement supporters spoke, urging the potential contributors to get involved and passing out forms for joining the President's Council.
After the talk, those in attendance spoke enthusiastically about the program, but only four placed their forms in a basket on the table.
Holla shrugged it off. "It's a start," she said later. "Nothing is ever easy."