Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Yizhuo Chen spoke no English when he and his family came to the District of Columbia from China five years ago, but the language barrier was just one of the struggles he faced at school.
The academic-minded boy was often picked on by his classmates at Stevens Elementary in Northwest. After school, Yizhuo would have preferred to spend his time studying, but he had to help out his family by working at the restaurant his parents managed.
The 11-year-old could well have been lost among the hundreds of underprivileged children in the Districts schools if a teacher had not spotted his potential. She recommended Yizhou for the Higher Achievement Program, a D.C. nonprofit that helps develop students skills and then helps them find scholarships to private and parochial schools.
The program teams about 120 schoolchildren from underprivileged backgrounds with mentors who work with the students for five hours, three days a week on a set curriculum. Higher Achievements two centers — at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School on Florida Avenue in Northwest and Brent Elementary on Third Street in Southeast — are equipped with state-of-the-art computer labs and other resources.
Over the months in the program, Yizhuos English improved — as did his grades — and he won a scholarship to attend Sacred Heart Catholic School in Northwest.
Almost all the children now enrolled in Higher Achievements two centers have inspiring stories to tell. Theres Sandra Jeter, a talkative fifth-grader from Sacred Heart who, less than a year ago, refused to look people in the eye, but now speaks confidently and boldly and who won a speaking award recently. Theres Abel Martinez, an 11-year-old who designed a Powerpoint presentation on the center by himself.
“When they told me about the Powerpoint, I was like, what is that?” said Abels mother, Adele Santos, who works as a bilingual medical clerk. A single mother of two boys, she says she could never find the time to help them with their homework.
“They are also more confident now, whereas earlier they were shy and didnt talk much. They now seem to take a greater interest in things,” Mrs. Santos said.
Students are recommended to the program by teachers in the Districts public schools and go through an interview where their academic curiosity is gauged, said program manager John Branam. Students then pay an annual fee of $100, and those who cannot afford the fee get scholarships to cover the cost.
About 70 percent of the children who join the program have below-average test scores, said the centers executive director, Maureen Holla. She also said that within the first year, the program succeeds in bringing most of these students up to par.
During their four years at the center, students — who are usually enrolled while in the fifth grade — go through intensive training that focuses on various aspects of personal development, including developing listening and writing skills. They also get access to tools and opportunities they would otherwise not have, Miss Holla said.
The program claims that more than 50 percent of its students show a whole letter-grade improvement within a year of enrolling for the program.
On a weekday evening, the atmosphere at the center on Florida Avenue is casual yet imbued with learning. During a community meeting in which everyone gathers in a large room, students volunteer to make sentences based on a “word of the week.” After that, and some announcements later, they disperse in groups of three and four with their mentors to do some serious studying.
Jeff Schmitz said his work as a mentor has so motivated him that he wants to give up his job as a structural engineer for the State Department and become a teacher in the citys public schools.
The program was started in 1975 by Jesuits associated with Gonzaga High School in the District to help children from public schools get into parochial schools. It closed in 1998 and then reopened in 1999 under a new board of directors. A third branch of Higher Achievement is expected to open in September.
Although started by Jesuits, the program has never had a religious focus, Mr. Branam said.
The program places students in a number of big-name private and parochial schools around the city, including Sidwell Friends, Edmund Burke, Murray, Sacred Heart and St. Albans. According to Miss Holla, 75 percent of the students get scholarships to attend high school, and as many as 95 percent of their graduates go on to college.
“If you can get the children early enough and connect them with a rigorous curriculum, you can change the course of their life,” Miss Holla said.

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