By Diana Cohen, Applerouth Tutoring Services

When the team at Applerouth Tutoring Services first read in Insights that IECA was providing pro bono college counseling to students through The Possibility Project, we were immediately inspired to also help support teens in the New York City after-school program. (See “Possibilities Abound,” Insights, April/May 2015). We approached volunteers Marilyn Emerson, a former IECA president, and Ann Rossbach, the current IECA president, and offered to supplement IECA’s college mentoring with a pro bono SAT class. Today, headed into our third year of collaboration, we’re more excited than ever about the possibilities that abound when organizations work together for student success. We hope the story of our collaboration will provide guidance and inspiration for others in their efforts.

Three Organizations Come Together

One need only spend a minute on The Possibility Project’s website to glimpse the amazing work the organization is doing for New York City teens. The program brings together students from all five boroughs of the city to write, produce, and perform an original musical based on the students’ life stories and a vision for a better future. Theater serves as a vehicle to turn negative forces in the students’ lives and communities into positive action.

“A key organizational goal is educational attainment,” explained Meagan DuBois, the Possibility Project’s artistic director and the liaison with IECA and Applerouth. The project’s educational outcomes are excellent: 99% of participating 12th graders graduate from high school or attain a GED, and 92% from the Saturday and after-school programs go on to college. “We want the college attendance number to be at 100% for every student who wants it,” said DuBois. “We also want to get our young people into their top-choice schools and with better financial aid.”

When The Possibility Project approached IECA several years ago about a one-time college admissions workshop, Emerson, then president, quickly identified the opportunity to do more. With the support of the IECA Board, she launched an effort to match Possibility Project students with IECA mentors. That effort has grown into a multi-faceted program that includes mentorships, college campus visits, a June workshop series with admissions representatives, and a fall SAT class with Applerouth. The Possibility Project also received an IECA Foundation microgrant in 2016.

Communication Makes It Work

Within a few weeks of Applerouth’s offer to provide test preparation support, all parties were on a conference call to discuss everything from class schedules to a calculator drive. Emerson and Rossbach provided critical guidance on the timing for the class according to application deadlines and potential score goals, and DuBois helped us understand the student body and the program.

Armed with those insights, Applerouth identified tutor Jess Kelley-Madera—a Cornell graduate and performing artist who studies improvisational theater—as the instructor for the SAT class because she understood the value of the theater-based programming. Improvisers, like Kelley-Madera and her Possibility Project students, are trained to listen and provide a valuable contribution to what’s been stated. “Listening and understanding my students’ lives is a role I take very seriously,” she says. The shared love of improvisation has helped fuel the Applerouth SAT class. Because the students in the class all knew one another from their theater work, there was no need to break the ice.

But the SAT class was not without its challenges. In the first year, students were still trying to orient themselves to the college admissions process, and they had many questions about the SAT’s importance and necessity. Eager to ensure that each organization was delivering its unique expertise to the students, she shared her observations with the others.

Once again, the three organizations held a conference call to discuss what they’d learned and how they could enhance the program. We all agreed that an introduction to the college admissions process was needed as a precursor to the mentorship and SAT class. The IECA volunteers planned a summer workshop series that Emerson would lead throughout June. Kelley-Madera, who was gearing up for her second year of teaching the SAT class, attended the workshops to stay abreast of what her students were learning about admissions.

A Year in the Life of the Program

The enhanced collaboration proved to be very successful in 2016. The year kicked off with college tours in February. While touring Siena College, Emerson arranged for a former Possibility Project student and mentee to speak about her experience at the school. As DuBois observed, that connection is invaluable: “The college tours are important because they allow our teenagers to see that it’s possible or realistic to go to college–that someone like them is at college and thriving, which makes their dream real.”

The newly-added June workshop series built off that momentum, arming students with information about admissions, financial aid, and what to look for in a college. Admissions representatives from the University of Rochester, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Purdue, and NYU spoke at the workshops. After the series was over, Emerson met individually with each student to help them complete the Common Application. Each student then worked with an IECA volunteer mentor on the college essay.

Reflecting on her experience teaching the SAT class after the June workshops were added, Kelley-Madera saw marked improvement for her students: “Everyone was clear on the purpose of the test and had rough goals in terms of scores….I had no reservations about the students getting to college and even being ahead of the process.” DuBois also noticed that the 2016 cohort seemed more focused on their applications. “I had students contacting me in October for recommendations, saying, ‘Hey, I’ll need this by Thanksgiving,’” she said.

But the journey doesn’t end with college admissions. “When students leave [The Possibility Project], they need to know what else is out there to support them . . . not being afraid to reach out [to adults] is critical,” said DuBois, noting that the goal is to connect the teens with adult mentors and that IECA and Applerouth have helped support that important goal. For example, Tamia Young, a senior, recently consulted Kelley-Madera about whether to take the SAT again and decided to do so, reporting that “Jess thinks it’s a great idea.”

Tamia echoed the importance of having trusted people to help her with the process. “She wanted to get to know me and push me forward,” she explained about her experience with Kelley-Madera. Tamia also appreciated that her IECA mentor asked questions that helped improve her essay—e.g., What’s the turning point?—and provided same-day feedback on drafts. She was almost finished with her college applications when we spoke in January; she plans to study theater and is interested in attending college outside of New York City.

Looking to the Future

Everyone is buzzing about the future of the program and has ideas for further growth. The shared excitement about what we’ve done together should come as no surprise. As DuBois aptly observed, “The thread of all these organizations is the success of our young people.”

If you’d like to help foster the success of this particular group of young people, please contact Marilyn Emerson about mentoring a Possibility Project student. Although efforts to help are sometimes met with a learning curve, they are also always met with great appreciation. We invite you to join us on the journey.

Diana Cohen can be reached at [email protected].

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