Monday, September 27, 2010

Higher Achievement Alumna Responds to Obama's Recent Back-to-School Speech

You see, excelling in school or in life isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. It’s about working harder than everybody else. Don’t avoid new challenges – seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your teachers and family are there to guide you. Don’t feel discouraged or give up if you don’t succeed at something – try it again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

That’s the kind of culture of excellence you promote here at Masterman; and that’s the kind of excellence we need to promote in all America’s schools. That’s why today, I’m announcing our second Commencement Challenge. If your school is the winner; if you show us how teachers, students, and parents are working together to prepare your kids for college and a career; if you show us how you’re giving back to your community and our country – I’ll congratulate you in person by speaking at your commencement.

- From President Obama’s back-to-school address delivered at Julia R.Masterman Magnet School in Philadelphia.

In President Obama’s recent address to Philadelphia middle and high school students, he stressed a few key components that, if you weren’t paying attention, could serve as carbon copies to Higher Achievement’s mission, values and goals. Obama passionately spoke to the importance of an overall culture of excellence for student achievement, where working hard, stepping up to challenge, and being a leader is essential. He also spoke to what it means to really be successful, and how strong citizenry is a characteristic of success. As a Higher Achievement alumna and current staff member, I, as well as the more than 10,000 Higher Achievement alumni understand the roles that each of these skills can play within the road to success.

What Obama calls a culture of excellence, Higher Achievement affectionately refers to as a culture of high expectation. As a young student, I remember how comfortable I was being in the background. If the teacher didn’t call on me, I wasn’t going out of my way to get his or her attention. However, after joining Higher Achievement, I found myself surrounded by staff who expected more out of us as students; but even better, I was among students who wanted more for themselves and their peers. My entire academic approach was transformed by something as simple as expectation. Once excellence was expected of me, I strived for it.

Of course, striving for excellence doesn’t always lend itself to immediately achieving it and that was another one of the many lessons that Higher Achievement taught me. Now that I had my academic attitude adjusted, it was time to work on my academic work ethic. For example, if I studied considerably hard for a test, spent an extra hour or two going over classroom material, got together with my friends to make sure I had the test concepts and still made a C on the test, that didn’t mean my efforts were in vain. Instead, that was my opportunity to review my efforts, see what I could have done differently, and apply the lessons learned to the next test. This, I learned, was the very essence of working hard.

It wouldn’t be in the spirit of Higher Achievement to stop at setting the expectation and working hard. Here, I also learned to step out side of my comfort zone. Once I mastered what I was great at, it was time to conquer what I was only good, or maybe even bad at. Higher Achievement pushed me aggressively to the next level, but simultaneously made me feel supported. I knew that if I were to misstep, Higher Achievement would be there to catch me before I fell, and put me right back on track.

It is a combination of setting the expectation, working hard and stepping up to challenge, that ultimately builds leaders. Some of the world’s greatest icons are those who think big, step outside of the box, and in turn give back to their communities. Since 1975, Higher Achievement has harvested the inner-leader in inner-city youth across the District. Now, in 2011, I am more than proud to be apart of the expansion efforts that will ultimately cultivate potential in young people, who like me, didn’t even know they had it. President Obama addressed the students of Masterman on what was sure to be a very special day for them; Higher Achievement addresses its scholars everyday about setting high expectations and changing not only academic outcomes, but the world.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Join us in Richmond this Saturday!

The Higher Achievement Richmond staff is pleased to join our neighbors for Richmond Public Schools' Choice Campaign Kickoff in the 6th and 7th Districts on Saturday September 18, 2010. We'll be canvassing the community in support of educational excellence and spreading awareness of the new Higher Achievement Center opening on Richmond's Northside in June 2011. We believe that when an entire community bears the responsibility for educating our youth, our children succeed. We'd love for you to join us!

We're meeting Saturday, 10am, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, 1000 Mosby Street. To learn more about our upcoming efforts in Richmond or to set up a specific time to meet us on Saturday (or anytime!), email Tyren Franzier at

- Eleanor Rouse
Executive Director, Richmond

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Alumnus Tariq West Reflects

Dear Richard,

I am writing you today to thank you. Thanks to you and Higher Achievement, I have accomplished more than I ever dreamed.

When I was eight years old, a wave of violence swept through my neighborhood. I went to sleep every night to the sound of gunfire.

The National Guard came with their humvees to set up huge banks of floodlights. For a week or more, the lights shone so bright that there was no night.

This was the backdrop of much of my childhood. Drugs and gangs were pervasive; in fact, it’s hard to even describe the sense of hopelessness that governed where I grew up.

I remember as a 10-year-old, a friend from my block asserting with utter confidence that we were never going to get out of the ghetto. “We were born broke and black,” he said, “and we’ll die that way.” Even as a child I understood how tragic a sentiment that was.

I struggled with what it meant to be a promising young person in a place where promise was crushed and squandered. How could I explain my ambitions to peers who had learned not to dream?

My parents were hard working, supportive and expected a lot of me, but their expectations were set against the powerful and destructive atmosphere that we lived in - mediocrity, failure, delinquency were the norms. It could have been all too easy to give up on my future.

Then I found Higher Achievement. It was the beginning of my coming into my own.

I just graduated from Stanford University. The day embodied the hard work and highest hopes of my parents and me. But we could not have done it alone. It was Higher Achievement that challenged and helped me grow at a pivotal point in my life.

Higher Achievement helped me opened doors in my life that I thought I could not have opened on my own. Now I know I can open those doors for myself, because Higher Achievement helped me build confidence, self-awareness and a sense of purpose in the world. Higher Achievement was a safe place for dreams.

Higher Achievement’s academic coaches and mentors helped me move beyond my struggles with mathematics, encouraged me to explore the world through the written word and helped me find my own voice. They believed in me and inspired in me a steadfast belief in my own ability.

Thanks to the skills and support I received at Higher Achievement, my grades improved dramatically. I attended a top-tier high school and studied alongside children who grew up in privileged environments. It was intimidating and alienating at times, but Higher Achievement had given me the tools I needed to succeed.

Now I’m a regular contributor to Higher Achievement and as I make the move back to the DC area I look forward to giving back as a mentor and as a friend of the program. My deepest hope now, and the reason I am writing to you today, is that I want children from all across the country to benefit from Higher Achievement as I did.

There is no question that Higher Achievement can make a difference. I am living proof.

The only question is how many children can be served. Thanks to the mentors and staff at Higher Achievement, I have accomplished things that once I couldn’t imagine. I feel compelled now to do everything I can to afford the same experience to every child who has dreams but lacks the means to achieve them.

Thank you, Richard, for your tireless faith in the promise of young people. Your commitment is inspiring and your vision of empowering youth is extremely necessary. Please let me know how I can help.


Tariq West

P.S. I owe so much to Higher Achievement. The program met me in my neighborhood, among my peers and gave me the tools to achieve my dreams. While other kids hung out on the street, I’d begun the hard work of building my future.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Richard Tagle, CEO, On School Reform and Motivation.......

On September 6, 2010, Robert Samuelson authored, School Reform’s Meager Results. The op-ed identified what Samuelson believes to be the two main reasons that school reform has failed. First, no one has effectively brought to scale a transformative reform approach, and second, students lack motivation.

I agree with the first reason and suggest that we are asking the wrong question about scaling reform. Perhaps reform approach itself is not a “scalable” element. What need to be scaled are practices that have proven to improve student performance. District hiring practices, interactive classrooms, and team-based approaches to professional development have brought positive outcomes not just in schools, but also in other institutions that require system-wide implementation. This country knows how to scale. We have more than doubled the number of people in prison, have more than 8 million children uninsured, and have more than 20 million of people out of jobs. We know how to scale. The real question is whether we have the will to scale those practices that bring about positive change.

On Samuelson’s second point – student motivation – Higher Achievement has been fostering student motivation for over 35 years. Each student in the program devotes more than 650 hours of rigorous academic work in addition to the 900 plus hours they spend in school. By providing solid opportunities to learn, excel and shine, Higher Achievement motivates students to work hard and to be engaged in their learning. Students become motivated when they know people are investing time, energy and resources in them. When we see them as assets and talent and not just assembly line widgets, they respond by proving that they are worth the investment. They rise up to high expectations and meet challenging demands. We have to believe in their promise and potential before we can ask them to exert effort. This “belief” is also something this nation should learn how to scale extremely well.