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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

HGSE helps Brooklyn middle school teachers guide their students on the path to college.

LeavesOn Thursday, April 2, Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA) — a small, public middle school established in Brooklyn, New York, in 2010 — brought some 200 scholars and staff to Harvard following a significant fundraising campaign, which raised nearly $1.5 million. Through Harvard College Admissions and Financial Aid and Project TEACH, an early college-awareness program at Harvard, the scholars spent the day exploring various aspects of the university.

During the visit, Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, along with her ReadyWilling and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success co-author Suzanne Bouffard, met with about 20 teachers and staff from the school to discuss college access and how identity can shape whether young people pursue and succeed in college.

“So much of this is not about college,” Bouffard said. “We make a case [that] supporting kids to college is about supporting them as people.”

The hour-long professional development session provided an opportunity for the MHBA faculty and staff to learn more about the developmental aspects of why some students attend college and others do not, and also to reflect on the challenges they face as educators in getting their students to college.

Savitz-Romer and Bouffard led an exercise in which they asked each participant to write — on green paper leaves that would be later be added to a paper tree — a reason for going to college other than to eventually make more money. The point, they said, is that for many young people the argument that going to college will bring you a higher salary simply doesn’t resonate. Instead, they argue that tapping into young people’s identity and interests can help really help guide young people to college. Then, support at school and home can help a young person envision oneself a college goer and believe attending college is actually possible.

The MHBA staff expressed concern about being able to keep their students focused on college when the children are dealing with daily social pressures at school or are faced with trauma in their lives.

“Part of the reason we did this trip is lack of access,” explained one MHBA staff member. “When we are in the space, we are focused on getting through the day… We don’t have those meaningful conversations.”

Savitz-Romer encouraged staff to find ways to imbue all conversations they have with their students with the possibility of continued education. As an example, Savitz-Romer mentioned that if she were a teacher, she could wear a Boston University sweatshirt to class one day – a divergence from her normal attire – to share the story about how she didn’t initially get to go there as an undergraduate because she couldn’t afford to and attended a state university instead. She later managed to attend as a master’s student. The idea is to illustrate to students that there is a way to reach their college destination, even if it doesn’t work out initially. Bouffard emphasized the importance of mapping out routes, even when there might be many detours or mistakes. There are never dead ends.

In closing, the green leaves written on by the staff were added to a paper tree – an activity that Savitz-Romer encouraged them to bring back to their own classrooms and complete with students. Then, the tree can stand as a reminder to them and their students about the multiple meanings and reasons to go on to college.