Opening Doors in Richmond

November 30, 2017
Five Spiders work to close the opportunity gap for underserved youth at Higher Achievement

Later this year, Higher Achievement Richmond, which opened its doors to area middle school students in 2011, will see its first class of scholars graduate from high school.

For five Spiders – Tyren Frazier, MLA ’13, Jess Pare, ’06, Jeanine Mowbray, ’14, Sarah Ramirez, ’16, and current School of Professional & Continuing Studies student Anj McClain – working with the organization to close the opportunity gap for underserved youth, it will be a very special moment.

"We focus on middle school because we know and research shows that middle school is one of the most important times of a school career," Higher Achievement Richmond executive director Frazier said. "Our goal ultimately is to get our kids on a college track by the time they enter high school. It happens through an intensive touch and reach within our program and also with our community partnerships, including our volunteer mentors."

Consistent mentorship is a key ingredient to Higher Achievement’s model. 

"It’s one of those things where, if you give it the time, if you nurture that relationship, they really value it," Ramirez said. "The scholars really look forward to seeing their mentors every day."

Currently, ten UR students are volunteering at the Thomas H. Henderson Middle School Achievement Center,  five at the T. C. Boushall Middle School Achievement Center, and two at the Binford Middle School Achievement Center.

"We have some mentors come to volunteer because they are interested in being teachers," Mowbray said. "This is a good opportunity for them to see what it’s like to work, to interact with scholars and present a lesson."

The impact of volunteering on career trajectory is something that the UR alumni working at Higher Achievement Richmond know well.

Ramirez pointed to her Sophomore Scholars in Residence experience, Urban Americas taught by assistant vice president of community initiates and the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement Amy Howard, as one of the main reasons she decided to pursue her current role as scholar services coordinator. Through a year-long, in depth study of the city and service at Peter Paul Development Center, Ramirez realized "I have to stay here."

After a few years in Miami with Teach for America, Mowbray, manager of instruction at Henderson Middle School, was also excited to return to the city that became her home as a Spider.

"I was a Bonner Scholar, and my site was Overby-Sheppard Elementary School. I was there all four years," Mowbray said. "And as a Bonner, you have to take Justice in Civil Society. During that time, I felt so inspired with my professor Dr. Soderlund and the issues that she talked about within communities."

Anj McClain, Higher Achievement’s new manager of development who is pursuing a master of nonprofit studies, was challenged and inspired by her time in the classroom to apply for her current role.

"I started the program at UR learning about all of the different subsectors and also hearing the news of what’s going on in Richmond, hearing about the education system, and the efforts to try to mend that system," McClain said. "I thought, 'I want to change subsectors.'"

The drive of the staff to continue to learn and challenge themselves certainly rubs off on their middle school scholars.

"Academics is our focus, and we’ve seen our scholars basically exceed their peers in all different areas of school attendance, academic performance, test scores, and high school placement," Frazier said.

Higher Achievement’s success in Richmond – and their centers in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. – also points back to early intervention.

Before joining the Higher Achievement team as manager of scholar and volunteer services, Pare was a future center director at Thomas Jefferson High School.

"I got to know and love the students and see how much potential and drive they had, but I was frustrated at the lack of preparation that they had received to achieve their dreams," Pare said. "The opportunity to come work with Higher Achievement and intervene at an earlier age, in an earlier stage of their development was really attractive to me."

In addition to academic enrichment for Higher Achievement scholars during the school year, summer visits to college campuses like UR are important milestones.

"Our scholars get to see students that look like them and know it’s a possibility for them to be on those school campuses," Tyren said. "They can live in dorms, swipe their cards for breakfast and lunch. The dining hall is a favorite for all of our scholars. My case is that UR dining hall is the best ever."