Despite decades of affirmative action policies, black and Hispanic students are less represented on top college campuses now than they were 35 years ago, according to a recent New York Times article.
College Begins in Kindergarten
But, as I’ve written before, college begins in kindergarten. I recently spoke with David Allyn, Ph.D. and CEO of Oliver Scholars, a New York-based nonprofit focused on preparing black and Latino students for success. He said the problem starts much earlier than college.
“The New York Times article acknowledged the real problem,” he told me. “The whole issue starts so much younger. High-achieving black and Latino youngsters just don’t have the same opportunity as their white peers in terms of the caliber and quality of the schools they’re going to.”
This isn’t just Allyn’s opinion. A report by the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, linked to in the article, stated that, “Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials, and adequate facilities,” the Times wrote.
But programs like Oliver Scholars are making a difference. In fact, you may one day fly in a supersonic airliner designed by a Guyanese-American engineer because of Oliver Scholars. Kenrick Waithe was recently highlighted on CNN because of the groundbreaking work he’s doing as an engineer at a Colorado-based startup.
Waithe was accepted into Oliver Scholars as an eighth-grader. After attending Westtown, a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania, he earned a bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in aerospace, aeronautical and astronomical engineering from George Washington University.
Allyn said it’s unlikely that Waithe or youngsters like him would achieve such rarefied goals going through the public school system in the Bronx, New York, where Waithe lived after coming to America at age 8.
Organizations like Oliver Scholars are critical, “Because they provide the opportunity for high-achieving students to match their goals and ambitions. High-achieving students need to be with high-achieving peers who are ambitious and care about learning.
“It’s critical for them to go to a school that matches their abilities and ambitions,” Allyn continued. “They need to be with teachers that are passionate and dedicated and have the academic background to serve high-achieving students.”
The Pivotal Middle School Years
It’s disheartening to think of the number of students who, through no fault of their own, get stuck in dead-end schools, who don’t get to experience the exhilaration of learning in a supportive, academically challenging, creative environment. But Allyn said that the same kids who get into Oliver Scholars and go on to achieve great things—these same kids, if left in the public schools, would get lost in the system.
Oliver Scholars and organizations like it provide the human capital needed to set these kids up for success. Ninety-six percent of its students graduate from college in five years.
“It takes a lot of work on behalf of a lot of adults,” Allyn said, “to make sure they’re on the right path for a top college.”
Thinking about college has to start early. Allyn said that to be on track for a top school you need to be ready for calculus by senior year. And you’ve got to be on track for that by seventh grade.
Indeed, Allyn said the middle-school years are pivotal. Oliver Scholars is now identifying students as early as the fourth grade for its program.
What Does It Take to be an Oliver Scholar?
Oliver Scholars looks for a combination of things in selecting students; grades, and test scores, but also extracurricular activities and a desire to give back. They look for signs of early leadership too. Candidates are interviewed alone as well as with other students and with their parents.
Allyn said the whole family will need to be involved.
“Supporting Oliver Scholars changes students’ lives,” he told me. I know that’s true since I’ve written about the organization before and met Scholars who bowled me over with their intelligence, winsomeness, and warmth.
But even Allyn conceded that organizations like his don’t change the system; and with their emphasis on “high-achieving” students, they leave out the many, many C or below students who could excel in the right environment.
For more on Oliver Scholars, visit its website.