Thursday morning, 10 a.m. Seventh-grade boys, all young men of color, are hunched over worksheets on subtracting polynomials. (You remember: (x^3 + 4x^2 + 3x – 8) – (5x^3 – 7x^2 – 3x + 2).) Their teacher, a college student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, asks if anyone needs extra time. Hands go up and mentors — older high schoolers in white shirts — help those who are stuck.
Across the hall, a student from Northwestern University in Illinois is instructing sixth-grade boys on personal essays. A chatty buzz fills in the room as mentors read over first drafts and point out errors to small groups of eager learners.
The multiple “generations” all working in one classroom — a college student delivering a lesson to middle schoolers, coached by a full-time teacher and assisted by high-school-age aides — makes for an unique sight. But it’s even more unusual at I.S. 392, a highly successful middle school that sticks out from the rest of Brownsville, an area that’s long been known as one of Brooklyn’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. Stranger still, it’s summer. These kids have voluntarily shown up for school while their buddies watch TV or play outside in the windless, 84-degree heat.
The classes are organized through Practice Makes Perfect, a New York City-based enrichment program now in its fifth year. The nonprofit’s goal: To close the achievement gap that creeps in when school’s not in session, says its founder and CEO Karim Abouelnaga. Known as the “summer slide,” researchers found lower-income students forget up to two months of schooling while their higher-income peers participate in summer reading, camps and other enrichment — exacerbating a divide that’s already wide during the regular school year. In Brownsville, Jamaica and the South Bronx, the program is helping 325 students, between third and seventh grade, get a head start on the next school year.
“As structured, summer school does not work,” Abouelnaga recently wrote in a letter to The New York Times. “The choice should not be between sending children to a broken summer school program or not. There is a third way: It means redesigning summer school, and making it challenging and engaging for children and teachers. Students need summer programs with individualized instruction, parental involvement and small classes that keep them from falling behind. They need summer programs where they feel welcome and where they want to learn. They need to be inspired to achieve.”
The son of Egyptian immigrants, Abouelnaga grew up in Long Island City, Queens. He went to an underperforming high school, where just half of his classmates graduated with a diploma and less than one-fifth were college-ready. He applied to college almost on a whim, sending applications to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (because he’d liked the movie “Good Will Hunting”) and Baruch College, located across the bridge in Manhattan and where he eventually enrolled. Abouelnaga received a 1770 on his SAT, a score that put him in the top percentile for his class in Queens. But when arrived at Baruch, he found that same number placed him in the 70th percentile of his college classmates.
He eventually transferred to Cornell, where with five friends, he decided to start a nonprofit addressing the achievement gap. Nearly two-thirds of the difference between wealthy students and their less well-off counterparts can be tied to summer learning loss. Few nonprofits were working to solve the problem, so Abouelnaga decided to focus his efforts on those crucial months when school’s not in session. He founded the offices for his 12-person team in the neighborhood where he once grew up.
“So many educational initiatives are sympathetic, instead of empathetic,” he says. “I was that kid who sat here, even though I was blessed with an elite education. I bring a unique perspective.”
On a recent site visit to I.S. 392, Abouelnaga is dressed in a navy blue pinstripe suit, purple tie and matching purple pocket square — business attire that he says sets “an expectation of excellence” for his students. At 23 years old, he projects high ambitions for himself and the growing organization. He wants to completely reform a disciplinary or remedial punishment into an exciting opportunity. He wants kids asking parents to sign them up for summer classes.
“Our brand is relationship-driven. There’s so much emphasis on technology and testing, that we can forget how much relationships matter in education,” he says. “Our mentors are what keeps kids coming back here.”
The walls of Practice Makes Perfect classrooms are decorated with posters. In bright marker, there’s the expected motivational phrases and standard ground rules (“Respect your classmates,” “If you want to be heard, RAISE YOUR HANDS”) along with some tougher expectations (“Goals: Must have 80% mastery in ELA” — English Language Arts — “and Math”). Beside that are poems written by the young boys. A representative quatrain sounds like this: “I remember the night when I ran from the bullet. / All I heard was clik-clak POW, it was more than five bullets. / I was running non-stop, hoping I didn’t get hit. / I was sprinting so fast that I almost tripped.” Another: “People think that black men won’t / accomplish anything but / that’s not true. / White men beat slaves till they were / black and blue.”
Rather than avoiding current events, Abouelnaga and his team have made them an essential part of the curriculum. Students read recent articles deemed newsworthy, like about the merits of body cameras for police officers. It’s all part of boosting Common Core test scores, which Practice Makes Perfect tries to measure rigorously. Every Thursday, teachers input students’ scores into a system to track progress and identify those that may be in need of more targeted intervention with the help of the mentors.
Through Practice Makes Perfect’s rigorous and engaging curriculum, students so far have made tangible academic gains. Last year, the middle school math scores improved by three percent, on average, and reading by seven percent; the high school mentors, who study the SAT before and after the youngsters show up, improved their scores on the college admission test by an average of 170 points.
But the program is about more than scores; empowerment is one of its core values. Abouelnaga’s summer school creates a permanently visible institution for the surrounding community, instead of empty hallways and classrooms — in Abouelnaga’s words, “unused real estate.” The children spend at least one day on a community service project, which demonstrates they can “make a difference in their neighborhood.” Some kids in Brownsville picked up trash around their school, one group in Bushwick volunteered at a community center and another class in Jamaica did group activities with younger kids.
Practice Makes Perfect is also creating ties between generations, in the hopes that middle-school students eventually come back as mentors in high school and advise everyone else once they’re off to college. It’s part of the reason why Abouelnaga has his college students do home visits before they start teaching — to break and confirm stereotypes and to create ties with the community.
What’s next for the organization? “There’s 1.1 million schoolchildren in New York City,” Abouelnaga says. “We haven’t even scratched the surface.”