Morfa, a first generation college student, turned to the people who helped her adjust to the rigors of Brooke Mattapan, the people who nominated her for the selective Posse Scholarship, the people who had tutored her since she was 11: the folks at the Achieve Program.
They instructed Morfa to visit Denison’s academic resource center, sign up for tutoring, and attend her professors’ office hours. Soon, things turned around.
“When you’re shown that other people care, it makes you want it more in a way because it shows that you’re not the only one rooting for yourself,” said Morfa, 20, now a junior at Denison. “I’m currently where I’m at because of Achieve.”
In the past 15 years, Achieve has helped hundreds of low-income Boston students reach college and gain entrance into high performing high schools, including Boston’s coveted exam schools. The program — run and mostly funded by The Noble and Greenough School, Nobles for short, an independent boarding school in Dedham — works with low-income Boston middle schoolers in traditional public and charter schools for free in an attempt to shrink opportunity gaps among less privileged students.
“Achieve has helped me learn new things and has given me so much opportunity and resources,” said Achieve alumna Jocelyn Cespedes Tavarez, a senior at Fenway High School. “It really did help me get ahead in school.”
Giving students extra support and guiding them throughout their academic careers to yield better long term results is not an original concept; however, Achieve’s connection to Nobles makes it an anomaly among such programs.
Marisa de la Torre, senior research associate at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, said Achieve’s success likely comes down to “providing the resources and information that these students do not have, but other students do have.” De la Torre, whose research explores early indicators of high school and college success, said extra support during transitions like ninth grade are especially helpful to students’ long term prospects.
Each year, the program receives around 100 applications from sixth graders, accepting about 30. The application process includes a review of student transcripts, teacher letters of recommendation, and financial statements to ensure students qualify as low income. Current participants attend about 25 different Boston schools.
Reginald Toussaint, executive director of Achieve, said the program is not necessarily looking for high performing students, but motivated ones. “If they understand what we’re trying to do, and they’re excited... they’re more likely to get their parents excited and more likely to, on a dark February winter, be willing to get up on a Saturday and come to Achieve,” he said.
On Saturdays during the school year, Achieve hosts half days of instruction where students receive breakfast and lunch, tutoring, and listen to guest speakers. During summer, the program runs a full day for five or six weeks. Students complete coursework, then the second half of the day is reserved for recreation like swimming, dancing, and going on field trips.
Despite Achieve being a voluntary program, it boasts attendance rates above 90 percent.
“It’s a place where you do both academics and have fun,” said Sheyree Williams, a Boston Latin School seventh grader. “They like to balance that, and you get to meet new people.”
Achieve alumni are also drawn back. In the summer, the program hires college students as teaching assistants. Last term, seven of the eight teaching assistants were former Achieve participants.
Achieve offers families support to identify and apply to the high school of their choice. About a third of Achieve students go to charter schools, while more than a quarter attend Boston’s exam schools. The remaining opt for pilot or independent schools, or traditional public schools. A few over the years attended Nobles.
“One of the biggest things as you’re tackling the exam schools within Boston, or any school really, is just providing students with the supports they need to be successful,” said Gavin Smith, head of school at Boston Latin Academy. “[Achieve] helps to prepare students to be here.”
Once in high school, Achieve staff have check-ins with ninth graders to ensure they’re transitioning well in their new environment.
Later, Achieve helps students find a college and scholarships. Upwards of 90 percent of Achieve graduates attend college after their senior year.
Ultimately, Toussaint says, Achieve’s goal is to change the trajectory of young people’s lives.
“They have so many low-income families in Boston where the kids have limitless academic potential, but they don’t have the resources and they don’t know how to navigate the system,” he said. “Our intention is to introduce them to, and familiarize them with, the full range of college opportunities available to them.”