It's no secret that a wide achievement gap exists among America's youths, an issue that most directly affects children from lower-income families.
Being struck by wide disparities in the quality of education children receive, and the subsequent achievement gap, Aileen Hefferren has made it her mission to help ensure that young lives are no longer predetermined by the zip code in which they live.
Ms. Hefferren is chief executive of Prep for Prep, an organization launched in 1978 in New York City that works to identify promising students of color and helps to prepare them for placement at top-quality independent and boarding schools. In short, according to the organization's mission, "Prep for Prep develops leaders through access to superior education and life-changing opportunities."
But grabbing that "life-changing opportunity" takes a great deal of hard work and commitment on the part of the students, Hefferren says.
"After an admissions process more selective than Harvard’s, Prep [for Prep] middle-school students must test their mettle through a 14-month academic boot camp: seven academic classes a day, four hours of homework a night, high standards, 25 percent attrition – you are beginning to get the picture," she explains. "I love that students who conquer this preparatory component know that they have walked in the front door of their new independent schools ... ready to compete at the highest levels."
Prep for Prep students primarily come from New York City public schools. Each year, more than 500 schools nominate middle schoolers in grades five, six, and seven who place in the Top 10 percentile of the English language arts tests. From some 6,000 students nominated, roughly 150 fifth and sixth graders, and 75 seventh graders, are admitted to Prep for Prep's 14-month program. Upon completion they are enrolled in a top prep school.
"Having struggled and been successful at such a young age, they know they can do anything else in the world," Hefferren says of the program's graduates. "We get letters back from our alums at Yale law school and [New York University] medical school saying it is relatively easy compared to what we asked of them as middle schoolers."
The program began with 25 students and a trio of educators. Today, more than 4,400 students and alumni are part of the Prep for Prep community.
Hefferren came to Prep for Prep in 1992 and now leads the organization as its chief executive.
"Upon learning about the program, what immediately inspired me was that it created opportunities for incredibly bright students to change their future through hard work," she says. "The lives of Prep students who rise to our challenge are no longer predetermined by the zip code of their birth. I know the work I have done and am doing will help transform the face of leadership."
Alumni of the program have gone on to do remarkable things, she says.
"During my two decades at Prep, I have witnessed some truly amazing stories: A young woman, armed with degrees from Brown, Penn, Columbia, and Oxford, went from one of America’s most violent neighborhoods to become a special assistant to the United States president," she says. "The son of a cleaning lady became CEO of his own tech company that counts Brooks Brothers and Macy’s among its clients. A girl raised by a single mom in a tiny apartment in Chinatown was named a Rhodes Scholar."
She continues: "The list of Prep’s more than 2,000 college graduates goes on and on and is followed by another 1,500 students in the pipeline. More of our students have graduated from Harvard than any other institution. Over 90 percent of our students have graduated from the most selective colleges in the country."
Participants receive personal and academic counseling, and they benefit from peer networks and other resources to help them along, including a fund for student and family emergency assistance.
Prep for Prep does not charge fees, nor does it accept public funding. Support for students comes through indepedent day and boarding school partners, who provide some $20 million annually in financial aid for participants based upon need. That support is continued as the students pursue college and graduate degrees as well.
Besides benefiting individual students, Prep for Prep has a broader mission: helping to support more diversity in leadership positions.
"America has clearly not yet achieved a post-racial society. While our nation is diversifying at an unprecedented rate, with nonwhite newborns now outnumbering white newborns, more than 95 percent of the leaders of America's 500 largest companies are white and male," Hefferren says. "With more representative leadership, there might be fewer situations like the one now in Ferguson, [Mo.]."
• To learn more about Prep for Prep, visit http://prepforprep.org.