TeenSHARP: Getting Kids to Think About And Get Into College

TeenSHARP is among the newest recipients of a Kars4Kids small grant, thanks to its terrific mentoring programs that raise college awareness among low-income and minority students (and their parents), prepares these students for college, and guides them through the admissions and scholarship applications process.

Wow! What a fabulous idea.

There’s no question that TeenSHARP deserves all the help it can get. Nor is there any question that Kars4Kids was going to want to help partner in TeenSHARP’s grand mentoring scheme. Kars4Kids spoke to Elnore Adams, Coordinator for Parent Engagement & Partnership Building and Founder of the TeenSHARP Parent Network, to find out all about TeenSHARP. No doubt there are some good takeaways lessons here for those of us who don’t happen to have access to TeenSHARP and besides, we’d like to spread the word of this good work!

TeenSHARPies studying (courtesy)
TeenSHARPies studying (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: What services does TeenSHARP offer that the children you serve, lack?

Elnore Adams: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average student to guidance counselor ratio nationwide is 470:1.This average is even higher in schools in low-income neighborhoods such as Camden and Philadelphia – 750 students to 1 guidance counselor. Both ratios are a drastic departure from the 250-to-1 maximum ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

Guidance counselors in most city schools have an overwhelming caseload, which prohibits them from offering each student adequate advising about the college admissions process. On average, students receive about 34 minutes of counseling throughout their 4 years of high school. A TeenSHARP scholar receives at least 25 hours of individual academic and leadership advising and mentoring in a program year. They are also exposed to a host of leadership and scholarship opportunities.

Learning (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Tell us about the parent enrichment programs you run. What sorts of skills will a parent learn from these programs?

Elnore Adams: Studies have shown that family engagement matters to student success. We believe in a strong partnership between scholars, parents, and TeenSHARP staff to produce strong academic and leadership outcomes for the students. TeenSHARP parents participate in the empowerment workshop series that include the following topics:

  • How to communicate effectively with teachers, administrators, and principals
  • Recognizing and navigating academic tracks within high schools
  • Helping students become good stewards of their time
  • Understanding the college admissions process
  • Total Wellness; mindfulness, physical health, finances
  • Advocating for your child

We encourage parents to attend school board meetings and be part of the conversation on deciding what’s best for our students and communities.

TeenSHARP parents (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: How would a child find out about TeenSHARP’s College Discovery program? Are children generally referred to your programs by teachers? What qualities does a typical aspiring TeenSharpie possess?

Elnore Adams: TeenSHARP shares information about its programs through various media, such as school counselors, community-based organizations,  listservs etc. However, most of the TeenSHARP applicants learn about the program through the word of mouth. Our parents are a great resource when it comes to getting the word out to the community.

We look for a student with a strong academic track record, high educational ambitions, passion for their community, and interest in growing as a leader.

TeenSHARPies at The White House Initiative (courtesy)
TeenSHARPies at the White House Initiative (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Reading about the successes of TeenSHARP is impressive: you have kids getting into top-notch schools. TeenSHARP is still young, having been founded in 2009; but can you tell us how many TeenSHARP students have attained college degrees? (Have any TeenSHARP students gone to graduate school?

Elnore Adams: Indeed, TeenSHARP is still a young organization. Over the past 7 years we have been honored to work with some outstanding young people who were invited to continue their academic journeys at some of the finest institutions in our country. This May, TeenSHARP will celebrate its first group of students graduating college. Among all TeenSHARP alumni, 100% are in college and on track to graduate within 6 years, with 85% on track to graduate in 4 years. Our alumni intend to pursue graduate studies, but that story still remains to be written.

At TEDx Teen NY (courtesy)
At TEDx Teen NY (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: We were intrigued to read about sixth-grader Abigail Kageni’s membership in the Scholastic News Kids Press. Is that part of what TeenSHARP does –tell kids about resources that are out there to help them get ahead?

Sixth-grader Abigail Kageni (courtesy)
Sixth-grader Abigail Kageni (courtesy)

Elnore Adams: TeenSHARP scholars are guided by five guiding behaviors: Appliers, Strivers, Starters, Connectors, and Givers. As appliers, TeenSHARPies are engaged to apply to pre-selected and pre-approved enrichment opportunities. Scholastic News Kids Press Corps is on the list of enrichment opportunities TeenSHARP encourages students to apply to. We have actually tried to “gamify” the application process: students participate in the “Application Ninja” competition where they receive awards and incentives for every opportunity they apply for.

As part of the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps, Abigail interviewed the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and American Civil Rights activist Marian Wright Edelman.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about the components of the College Access Ambassador Training. How rigorous is this program?

Elnore Adams: The College Access Ambassador program meets every Saturday during the school year for training in personal leadership (including academic and professional success skills and communication modules), issues of social injustice in education, college literacy, project leadership, and social entrepreneurship. Beginning in their sophomore year, each student designs a plan to create a TeenSHARP college prep club and/or implement major college readiness campaigns in their school (i.e. a college awareness month or week; speaker series; documentary screening and discussions etc).

Abigail (left) with Civil Rights activist Marian Edelman (courtesy)
Abigail (left) with Civil Rights activist Marian Edelman (courtesy)

The program has two tiers of impact. In its first tier, the program trains at least 30 high school students of color as College Access Ambassadors each year and provides them with hands-on academic and college prep guidance.  In its second tier, each College Access Ambassador reaches an average of 60 peers each year through their capstone leadership projects. Therefore, every year TeenSHARP reaches about 2,000 high school students (a conservative estimate as some of the students attending large high schools implement school wide projects reaching 1,500+ students) with information about college admissions requirements, application process, financial aid , and so forth.

TeenSHARP’s unique CAAT model allows the program to raise hundreds of students’ awareness about higher education each year as TeenSHARP CAAs conduct school-wide campaigns and initiatives for their peers. While serving their communities, CAAT students also are positioned for successful admission into some of the nation’s most selective colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania, Bard, Bowdoin, Spelman, Occidental, Smith, and Lehigh, for instance, and leadership opportunities such as the Bank of America Student Leader Internship; TEDxTeen conference; Building a Grad Nation conference; Philadelphia Foundation Youth Advisory Board, for example.

TeenSHARPies are thrilled with these gifts that will help them get into college (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: How many volunteers are helping the children at TeenSHARP? Tell us about your typical volunteer.

Elnore Adams: At our two sites—TeenSHARP at Rutgers Camden and the brand new TeenSHARP – Delaware—we are very fortunate to have over 60 volunteers, not including parents who volunteer providing refreshments and serving as chaperones. Our volunteers are high-achieving individuals who may be senior undergraduate students, graduate students, or even professionals. These volunteers are passionate about bridging college access gaps and remedying the injustices of the past. Volunteers perform a variety of roles ranging from instruction, mentoring, advising, and tutoring.

TeenSHARPies at the University of Richmond (courtesy)
TeenSHARPies at the University of Richmond (courtesy)

Kars4Kids:Why is it important for the kids in TeenSHARP to go to top-notch colleges? Is this what all kids strive for? Or do some of them go to community college or other less-than-Ivy-League colleges?

Elnore Adams: TeenSHARP aims to prepare students for and place them at top colleges. At those schools students frequently receive the most robust support; develop strong transferable skills (i.e. writing, public speaking, research etc.); receive the most generous funding; and gain access to outstanding networks of alumni. Our advising is targeted at preparing students for admission into top-caliber schools, however, the ultimate goal of TeenSHARP is to make sure that a student matriculates into a college that best fits his/her personality and learning style, provides opportunities to prepare for a desired career field, and allows students to graduate with no or minimal debt. 95% of our students gain admission into one of the 238 most selective colleges in our nation.

TeenSHARPies meet Mrs. Alma Powell (courtesy)
TeenSHARPies meet Mrs. Alma Powell (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Would you say that the main goal of Teen SHARP is to level the playing field, or is it more about raising the level of consciousness about college and education in general, in students from low-income homes?

TeenSHARPies having fun in Rhode Island
TeenSHARPies having fun in Rhode Island

Elnore Adams: I would say both. TeenSHARPies are trained to raise awareness about college among their peers, thus helping bridge the racial and socioeconomic disparities in college access. By taking these steps, they are not only raising the level of consciousness but also contributing to leveling the playing field.

Kars4Kids: Are you excited to go to work in the morning? What do you love about your job?

Elnore Adams: I am very passionate about the work we do. Besides the accomplishment of our seniors achieving the ultimate goal of gaining admission to top-notch colleges and securing generous financial aid packages, I love it when a student comes through our doors very adamant that this 6th day of school is not cool; his parents perplexed on how we are going to win this student but encouraged to see the happy, relaxed faces of the TeenSHARPies. Observing the changes in both student and parents after a week or two in the program is priceless.

TeenSHARPies with Soledad O'Brien
TeenSHARPies with Soledad O’Brien
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