Higher Achievement doesn’t call its participants “students,” but “scholars.” That’s the growth mindset that is yielding results for middle school students in the DC area. The organization offers intensive programming to help close the education gap for those living in low-income neighborhoods. Largely, Higher Achievement succeeds, and that success is what led us to award a small grant to this organization. We spoke to Higher Achievement Executive Director Thalia Washington to learn more:
Kars4Kids: Can you tell us a bit about your demographic?
Thalia Washington: Higher Achievement serves middle school scholars across the District of Columbia, Alexandria, VA, and Greenbelt, MD. Our scholars are talented young people, and Higher Achievement supports their academic success during the critical middle school years.
Kars4Kids: Higher Achievement addresses inequity. Can you talk about that? What sort of opportunity gaps exist for your participants?
Thalia Washington: Higher Achievement focuses our work in communities where there is a historical and systemic disparity in resources and access to opportunities for students. The opportunity gap that we target is equal access to the DC metro area’s high-performing public schools. Too often, students of color and students from low-income families are concentrated in the city’s lowest performing schools.
In addition, graduating middle school students in DC can apply to any high school that best suits their goals, but the application processes are complicated and competitive and can be daunting for families furthest from opportunity to navigate. Higher Achievement’s role is to bridge that gap and support scholars and families through the process of learning about the high school landscape, applying and matriculating to rigorous, college preparatory high schools. We do this through academic enrichment and small-group high school readiness mentoring and high school placement coaching during middle school.
Kars4Kids: How do students come to take part in your programming? Are the students referred to you by the schools? What are the eligibility requirements?
Thalia Washington: Higher Achievement recruits students of all levels of academic achievement into our program. On average students come to us with a 2.5 GPA (or a “C” average), placing them in the academic middle. By graduation from the program in 8th grade, the average scholar grade is an “A minus.”
We intentionally apply an equity lens to scholar recruitment by making presentations in individual classrooms, participating in open houses at the school, and following up by phone with all prospective families. Scholars are also often referred to us by teachers and counselors. We know that if we only filled our open seats with scholars whose families proactively seek us out we would miss scholars who could benefit and we would be replicating inequities that already exist due to language barriers, work schedules, and general knowledge about out of school time opportunities.
Kars4Kids: You offer “high-impact” tutoring. Can you explain how this type of tutoring differs from basic tutoring sessions?
Thalia Washington: Yes! “High-impact” refers to standards for program dosage and quality that are proven by research to be successful in supporting students in recovering lost learning, which is especially important as students return to school in-person after a year of virtual learning. High-impact tutoring programs are held at least three times per week for a minimum of 45 minutes per session, and students work with a trained tutor in groups of four or fewer.
Specifically Higher Achievement offers literacy tutoring in this high-impact format to target lost learning from the interrupted school year. This personalized approach will support our scholars in reading comprehension, reading, and communication skills.
Kars4Kids: Higher Achievement offers mentoring. Can you give us an overview of how it works, and describe your goal for providing mentors to your participants?
Thalia Washington: Mentoring is at the center of Higher Achievement’s programming. We have seen over our years of work that the relationships that our community mentors build with scholars in the program have real positive results – both for the scholar and the mentor. For scholars, having someone outside of school and home who is on your side and encouraging you can be transformative, and our mentors stay with the same group of scholars throughout their time volunteering so that these relationships can flourish.
Mentors works with our scholars each week on a high school readiness curriculum that our staff designed to build scholar confidence, expose them to their high school options, and in 8th grade, support applying and enrolling in their best-fit high school.
Kars4Kids: Higher Achievement works with students in 5th-8th grades. Why have you chosen to focus on this age group specifically?
Thalia Washington: Middle school is a student’s last, best chance to stay on-track for college. It’s a critical time of growth, change, and goal-setting, and when students capitalize on this time to invest in their futures through their grades and their personal development, they are setting themselves up for long-term success.
The path to college and post-secondary attainment begins in middle school when students make the choice to commit themselves to their goals and develop a path to get there. Higher Achievement’s role is to help them make these first steps by supporting their academic enrichment, social-emotional learning, and high school enrollment.
Kars4Kids: What sort of time commitment comes with enrollment in Higher Achievement?
Thalia Washington: Higher Achievement asks students and families to commit to our program for four years, which is a lot! We set high expectations for our scholars because our program is most effective as scholars build on each year’s successes. Scholars meet at minimum twice per week for three hours after school for 29 weeks during the school year.
Kars4Kids: Do you have a summer program? Can you tell us about that?
Thalia Washington: We know it’s important to keep scholars engaged year-round, so Higher Achievement does stay in touch with our families during the summer. We hold family engagement meetings with scholars and families to discuss the previous year and set goals for the coming school year, particularly looking at the scholar’s high school goals and what we can do to help them get there.
Higher Achievement also encourages our scholars to keep an eye on the college goal, and each summer we hold college trips to local universities in the DC metro area. These trips are fun, energetic, and informational as scholars walk on campus, take a class in a lecture hall, and learn more about the rewards and rigors of the college experience. They’re always a scholar favorite!
Kars4Kids: How has the pandemic affected the work you do, if at all?
Thalia Washington: As was experienced by educators and students everywhere, the pandemic was hard on our organization. Higher Achievement is traditionally in-person, but when schools closed their doors in 2020, we had to quickly transition to an entirely virtual model. This virtual model incorporated new program elements to target our scholars’ top needs, like personalized math support and opportunities to learn and engage with their friends.
We are proud to have implemented this virtual model for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year, but we’re thrilled to be back in person for 2021-2022! Higher Achievement is now targeting our program to provide the personalized learning opportunities that were lacking in the virtual setting so that our scholars not only regain lost learning, but continue to set goals and excel.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for Higher Achievement?
Thalia Washington: Higher Achievement is focused now on supporting students through academic learning recovery while paying special attention to their social emotional needs during this period of transition back to in-person learning. We are continuing to recruit more students who were impacted by the pandemic, and we are looking closely at the research as well as listening to our scholars, families, and school partners to provide programming that meets the current need, particularly through our high-impact literacy tutoring and high school readiness mentoring.