TeenSHARP Celebrates Ten Years #inWilm
As a second-generation college graduate, I was familiar with the march toward postsecondary education that kicked off when my own kids entered high school. We did the online searches. (Okay, that part was new since I graduated high school.) Still, with the benefits of my flexible schedule, access to internet and transportation, and a knowledge of the system, we availed ourselves of twelve schools/university tours in four states, circling back to six universities for a second look. My husband and I made sure our kids had adequate SAT prep and participation in activities that would send their resumes to the top of the pile. We applied for grants and aid to supplement our college savings accounts. In the hot summers before their senior years, I huddled with each of my kids at the dining room table as they wrote their college essays. If you asked them, they would roll their eyes and tell you that having their writer mother hound them to “be more specific” and “find a better transition” was hardly an advantage. But to smart kids from low-income households or whose parents never went to college, it is the lack of this kind of guidance and accessibility that that puts otherwise excellent candidates at a disadvantage. In fact, 53% of low-income students do not apply to a single college that matches their grades and test scores. And only 16 percent enroll in a highly selective four-year college.
It was this gap between capable applicant and worthy institution, that Tatiana Poladko and Atnre Alleyne hoped to bridge when they founded TeenSHARP, an organization to increase underrepresented but high-achieving students’ access to college and develop student-leaders who are Successful, High-Achieving, and Reaching Potential (SHARP). In those early years, they operated out of the basement of a church, but they were on a mission to grow their advocacy. And they have. On Tuesday evening in downtown Wilmington, I attended TeenSHARP’s tenth anniversary reception. It was indeed a celebration. The lobby of the Hercules Building was packed with participants, staff, media, and donors coming together to mingle, nosh on hors d’oevres, and enjoy the live music.
I engaged with two participants in the Striver Program, TeenSHARP’s year-round, Saturday boot camp that not only helps students prepare for college admissions but also prepares them for the rigors of college itself. Jus-Tina Garcia and Mya Brown, a rising senior at Concord High School and junior at Newark Charter respectively, were bright with praise for the program. They described a recent trip in which 80 area students visited 8 top schools including Howard, American, and Duke universities and met with college presidents, deans, and alumni. In addition, teens got to talk to first-generation college students with backgrounds similar to their own to discuss their unique challenges and insights. The Saturday Boot Camp had prepared the students for these visits. During their sessions, students were required to take a supplemental math class, work on college admissions requirements, and take college level courses such Racial Justice and Environmental Science. If that seems like a hefty load to take on during the school year, consider what students do over their summer breaks. They are required to fulfill an Application Ninja assignment, completing five applications for enrichment programs. This summer, Just-Tina is participating in Girls Who Code, a program to teach girls to code and help close the gender gap in technology-related (and therefore lucrative) fields. It worked. Jus-Tina is considering majoring in a tech-related subject, an idea she didn’t entertain before participating in Girls Who Code. To this end, she applied to twelve colleges. Mya, fresh from her environmental college course, is spending her summer vacation volunteering at Rittenhouse Camp, a local nature-oriented camp for kids ages 5 to 12. If these two girls are any indication, I’d say the Striver program is hitting its mark.
TeenSHARP offers more than a college on-ramp for its low-income, black, and Latino students. Other services include teaching financial literacy. Delaware is top five in the nation for average student debt at over $34,000. In contrast, TeenSHARP scholars graduate with less than $20,000. Support doesn’t end when the student gets accepted to college. TeenSHARP has staff and volunteers on hand to guide students through their college experience and beyond to their careers. TeenSHARP's endgame is less about getting more diverse students through the educational pipeline (though it does) and more about creating educational ambassadors and community/industry leaders throughout the Delaware, South Jersey, and Philadelphia region. It’s a lofty goal. But after talking to people at the reception and watching online testimonials from program graduates, I can’t wait to see the expanded opportunities the next decade of TeenSHARP creates for youth IN Wilmington.
Want to learn more about available programs or how you can support TeenSHARP with donations of time or money? Check out their website.
Filed Under: IN the News