Going Back to Higher Achievement

Twenty-three years ago, my shy pre-teen self was doing everything possible to stay far out of the spotlight. That was until a Higher Achievement Center Director, Benjamin Wides, took on the challenge of encouraging me to come out of my shell. That summer, we read Sharon Bell Mathis’ Teacup Full of Roses and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. He wanted to know what I thought, and stressed that he wanted me to write my best essay ever about both texts. More than two decades later, I still remember how every time I thought he was finished, he came up with one more thing I could change to make my piece just a little bit better. His core message was clear. I must have heard a hundred times during those hot summer days that there were no good writers, only good re-writers. By the time I made my final edit, I was so happy with what I had done that I kept it tucked away in a corner of my desk. Over the years I’ve changed desks and homes since then, but I have always taken that essay with me. His feedback was the first time I actually got actionable steps about how to improve my writing.

When I look at that essay, I remember always that my writing is a process that I own.

To end our summer together, Ben had one more surprise. He would usually deliver the morning announcements to our entire center. This one day, he told me only a few minutes before our assembly that I would be assisting him. Before I could crawl back into my shell, he had dressed himself as a clown, red nose and all, telling me that I should only look straight at him and his crazy curls, still wet from our center’s earlier visit to the Banneker Recreational Pool. I read the announcements that day and conquered my fear of public speaking.

That fall I started thinking more about college, and Ben connected me to people who knew about schools in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. My horizons were growing by the day.

Fast forward to the present, where the Higher Achievement landscape has indeed changed. Field trips are most often visits to prospective high schools and colleges. Scholars now study science and math. In ELA, they  not only read books and analyze literature, but are also learning how to write argumentative essays. In DC, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Richmond, scholars are using a program from One World Education, where I now lead the teaching and learning team. Our program teaches students about the research and writing process one step at a time. We explore the key components of stating a claim, citing hard evidence to back up one’s points of view, understanding and rebutting counterclaims, and drawing strong conclusions, all skills critical to becoming a college-ready writer.

While the academics at Higher Achievement have grown more rigorous, the values I remember, especially the push from adults who always believed that we could do more, are still there. On a recent visit to the Brookland Achievement Center, I had to smile watching center director Rachel in action. A shy girl, perhaps needing extra encouragement, sat in Rachel’s office eating lunch. Rachel had a supportive arm around the girl’s shoulder. Many years before, that child easily could have been me.

I left Brookland that day confident that students there would be stronger writers and thinkers because of their work with the One World Program. I also felt extremely proud to be partnering with Higher Achievement, where more than two decades later there are still adults around every corner, encouraging their scholars to aim higher.

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