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A Home for Children's Minds

The Seventh Annual Academic Olympiad Comes to HGSE

Bill Kargman kicks off the 7th Annual Academic Olympiad (photo by Elizabeth Gehrman)When the late Max Kargman started developing affordable housing in the 1960s, his ideas about how it should look were informed by his own humble beginnings as the son of Russian immigrants growing up in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. "My father came from a very poor family in Chicago," says Max's son Bill Kargman, a 1961 graduate of Harvard College, "and he attributed his motivation and education to the settlement-house counselors, who really put him on the right track." So when Max--who died in August at age 96--founded First Reality Management (FRM) in the 1960s, he believed it was important to give people more than just a roof over their heads. As a housing developer, Max, who earned a Ph.D. in education from Harvard, went beyond federal guidelines of the time to provide attractive grounds, responsiveness to resident concerns, and onsite management offices in FRM's original apartment communities.

Bill began working for FRM in 1972, and is now president and CEO. From the start, he thought it was important to "motivate kids to improve their lives through education." The Seventh Annual Academic Olympiad, which took place Saturday, November 19 in HGSE's Gutman Conference Center, is an outgrowth of that passion. "I started [at FRM] with the assumption that a sense of community was vital to the well-being of the people who live in these properties," Bill Kargman says.

In the mid-1980s, Bill incorporated into the properties' programs an athletic competition to help children learn teamwork, and by 1998 he'd added a separate scholastic contest--the Academic Olympiad--to the roster of activities. "We thought we should let the kids who aren't athletic show off, too," he says.

The more than 100 children who came from complexes managed by First Realty to compete in the Olympiad seemed to think that was a very good idea. Their enthusiasm was evident from the moment they stepped into the conference center.

"Who's the president of the United States?" Kargman asked to get them warmed up. Dozens of hands flew into the air, for that and another 20 or so questions covering everything from politics to history to the Patriots and Red Sox. But the kids, aged seven to 17, were just getting started. They spent the next five hours moving between stations, where they tested their skills in geography, vocabulary, geometry, and general knowledge. Though the children probably didn't know the academic purpose, they were even given challenges in engineering and physics--competing to see which team could build the highest tower out of toothpicks and gumdrops, and constructing an aluminum-foil boat to be tested against the other teams' vessels with handfuls of tiny toy bears as passengers.

The Brandywyne Team Students on the Brandywyne team, winners of the Olympiad (photo by Elizabeth Gehrman)This year, the Brandywyne team came out on top, unseating the reigning champs from High Point Village, who have won the competition two years in a row.

It was nice to win, of course, but the kids from Brandywyne seemed genuinely more interested in the journey than the destination. "The Academic Olympiad is cool," says Kenny, 12, who has competed for two years, "because we get to challenge ourselves and go somewhere to compete against other teams." Yesmenia, 15, agreed, with none of the detached reticence of many girls her age. "It looks good on your resumé to be involved with Harvard," she says. "It's fun and it helps you learn at the same time." Yesmenia, who is in all-honors classes at East Boston High School, says the program helps her hone the skills she learns in class. She plans to go to college to study teaching or nursing.

The Academic Olympiad is part of a larger mentoring and tutoring program FRM sponsors at Brandywyne in conjunction with Project IF: Inventing the Future. HGSE Lecturer Michael Nakkula, who runs Project IF and is codirector of the Risk and Prevention program, specializes in studying how environmental and psychosocial factors can influence the lives of low-income youth. Project IF's program coordinator Molly Gosline, Ed.M.'03, supervises tutors who set up shop at Brandywyne four days a week to help young residents with their homework and engage them in fun activities that have an educational component. The program is based in an integrated learning approach developed by Ronnie Mae Weiss, director of the Bridging Project at the Harvard After-School Initiative (HASI). This year, for the first time, students in Nakkula's Risk and Prevention class are systematically researching the approach taken at FRM properties.

"I believe that [Housing and Urban Development–assisted housing is] an untouched national resource," says Bill Kargman. "If there were a private-public partnership between HUD and universities, the lives of many economically disadvantaged kids would be changed."

The anecdotal evidence is compelling. "I was bad at math and geography," says Hanane, 11, who has been participating in the Academic Olympiad for a few years. "I got an ‘F' in geography and a ‘C-plus' in math, so I decided to get into the program to get my brain going. I improved to an ‘A' in geography and an ‘A' in math." Mustapha, 11, also claimed it has helped his grades. "My English Language Arts score went from a ‘C' to an ‘A,'" he says. "Math was a ‘B,' and now it's an ‘A-plus.'"

It isn't just the annual contest that improves academic performance, of course, but the program as a whole. "It really depends on what else is going on," Nakkula says. "A motivational experience like this isn't enough, but as part of a larger package of educational and supportive activities, it gives their day-to-day work more meaning, keeps them connected in their relationships with adults, and exposes them to new experiences. When they're part of a sustained effort, all of these components taken together can be very powerful."