Partnerships are Critical to Addressing Academic and Opportunity Gaps

By Michael G. Johnson, President and CEO, Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF)

Fair and equitable opportunity for a solid academic experience should be the norm and it’s what we all expect. But it’s not what we all experience. Especially for Black and Brown students, for those from underserved communities, for those who are first in their families to consider college, the obstacles can be daunting if not sometimes impossible to overcome. Compound that with the challenges of a pandemic over the last two years—remote learning, the growing digital divide. It’s not a very encouraging picture.

After 25 years in economic development, corporate philanthropy, and government administration—this summer I assumed leadership of Harlem Educational Activities Fund, the nonprofit college access program that for more than thirty years has opened doors to college and meaningful careers for students from underserved communities across New York City.

I stepped into my role knowing that addressing academic and opportunity gaps for our young people is the right thing to do, and with the firm conviction that addressing inequities in education will raise us as a society—all of us, regardless of background or stature. Opening doors to opportunities for often-overlooked communities will flood talent pipelines with diversity, new ideas, and broader perspectives.

We all appreciate the progress we have seen in our lifetimes, and can point to stories of individuals who pulled themselves up “by their bootstraps” to become celebrated titans of industry. However, those stories are the exception, not the norm.

Our education system is not fair or balanced in this country, which means students do not have equal access to academic resources, or the same exposure to college and careers. We are failing our children across the board.

I’m sure by now everyone has seen the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report that showed the largest drop in math scores ever, and a nationwide plummet in reading that reversed thirty years of progress.

Low-per forming fourth-grade students saw larger declines in both math and reading scores than high-performing students, and Black and Hispanic fourth graders had larger score drops in math than white students.

Zooming in on New Jersey, NAEP reported 38% of the state’s fourth graders were proficient in reading, and 39% were proficient in math. These numbers exceed national averages of 29% for reading and 35% for math, but also represent a significant drop compared to pre-pandemic scores.

These numbers are daunting, but I know there is a road to success. I know there is a guaranteed way to make progress for all our nation’s students, and critically for those whose communities are disproportionately underserved. The answer is enrichment programs that partner with the public and private sectors to provide support for our students outside the classroom.

HEAF’s tuition-free program gives middle and high school students rigorous academic enrichment to complement and supplement the work they are doing in the classroom. We focus on personal development, encouraging students to find their voices and define their goals.

We drive college prep and success, and with our corporate partners and volunteers, we provide career exposure and readiness.

Compared with the overall results in HEAF’s hometown of New York City, and compared with the national statistics, our students outperform on every metric.

Over 90% of HEAF students are people of color. Many come from single-parent or single-income households; many qualify for free school lunch; 100% graduate on time, every single one of them. They’re accepted into colleges and universities across the country, and they succeed. Then, they return to HEAF to give back. What better measure of success is there than that?

From my perspective, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure each and every student has a fair chance and equal opportunity to be successful. And our founders, Dan and Joanna Rose, believed that as well. We celebrated HEAF’s roots in October at our annual gala, and honored Dan and the late Joanna for their overwhelming generosity and commitment to children who don’t have the privilege of access to resources that will propel their success.

I encourage all communities to embrace the example set by Dan and Joanna Rose, to support programs that bridge academic and opportunity gaps, and make sure every student in this country has a chance to succeed.