Rachael Okpara is shown on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., where she is a first-year student. Okpara graduated last June from Blackstone Academy Charter School, which serves 350 students from Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Providence. (Contributed photo)
Rachael Okpara’s parents immigrated from Nigeria, willing to start from scratch to build a better life for their family. Undocumented at the time, but no longer, they were scared to reach out for help. It was a rough go.
Still, they expected the best from Rachael, telling her, “If you come back with low grades, Mom might tell Auntie.” And who knows what would have happened then?
An intact family with high expectations is a strong foundation for any kid. But education is a series of building blocks leading, hopefully, towards adult success. Families can’t do it alone.
But here’s how Rachael described what her district middle school was like:
“Bad, the worst school experience for anyone. Fights every day. A gun incident. Always walkie-talkies. Lockdowns. Teachers running after kids. If the principal knew your name, you must be a bad kid.”
She kept her head down and excelled. But imagine the quality of that education..
At the end of eighth grade, she braced for high school, or what she called “public school, part two.”
Unbeknownst to Rachael, Mom had applied to charter schools. Despite the 1 in 10 odds of getting into any charter, divine intervention plucked Rachael for a spot at Blackstone Academy Charter School (BACS). “It was so peaceful,” is how she described high school.
Last June, Rachael graduated from BACS ; this fall, she started her first year at Harvard University. “I’m over the moon about it,” she said.
Rachael’s classmates, also low-income and urban, are now attending Yale, Williams, Howard, Boston University, and other prestigious four-year colleges. And 92% of the 85 seniors who made up BACS’ Class of 2023 graduated on time. All of the four-year-college aspirants applied to the University of Rhode Island and were accepted. (Often the financial package was better at the privates.) Those not interested in college are equally set for job training and internships.
So what’s Blackstone’s secret sauce?
In my opinion, it’s that BACS developed a spring-loaded college-and-career launching pad. From day one, this was the message: High school graduation is critical, another foundational building block. But high school is only the platform for the next, far more important chapter of your life.
In its 22-year history, founders and still current directors Head of School Kyleen Carpenter and Executive Director Carolyn Sheehan realized that when kids don’t come from college cultures at home, nothing about post-graduation can be left to chance.
BACS developed a spring-loaded college-and-career launching pad. From day one, this was the message: High school graduation is critical, another foundational building block. But high school is only the platform for the next, far more important chapter of your life.
The school has at least three strategies to wrap each kid in their future possibilities.
Strategy #1 is how they deploy resources. Beyond the college pennants you see at other schools, and their drumbeat of college talk, BACS invests lots of human attention.
Their cleverest idea is to have four administrators be “the closers.” When students enter the 9th grade, off in the distance of senior year, they see they’ll have a closer, a trusted adult who will oversee all the annoying details of applications – deadlines, essays, completing projects and school work. Closers nag when necessary, just like middle class parents.
Seniors take seminars in post-secondary life.
When teachers course loads dropped, the school immediately redeployed them to support kids, many still traumatized by the Covid years.
Collaboration prevents adults from burning out. They’re paid at the middle of the Rhode Island salary scales, and the school usually has little turnover and zero since Covid.
Strategy #2: All 9th-graders are paired with an adult who meets with their advisory group often and purposefully. These family-like groups stay together for the entire four years, learning to resolve conflict, to reach out for support and advice, and to know themselves. The interaction among the group is its own social-emotional course, practiced in real life with adult guidance instead of from an off-the-shelf curriculum.
Sheehan says, “If you work at Blackstone you’re expected to be talking to kids regularly about wellness and social emotional learning.”
Strategy #3 has students completing community service projects every year that address real-life community problems. BACS has the guts to trust students to work in the community with non-school adults. Rachael packed lunches for the homeless, while working with a nonprofit. She dedicated her huge senior project to working on the political barriers posed to the immigrant community.
“No matter how small you are, you don’t have to be an important person already to be in the mayor’s office,” Rachael said.
Besides exposure to the real world, such projects build robust resumes.
Of course, academics are huge, or those fancy colleges wouldn’t have accepted these students. But without that supportive vascular system, they would likely not have achieved nearly to the levels they did.
For the record, Blackstone is a one-star school, the lowest rating, according to Rhode Island’s school-accountability system. Wait, what? Besides the glaring glitch in the state testing strategy, this is a discussion for another day.
BACS kids will throw their mortarboards in the air on graduation day. But every one of these kids will have a solid plan for the next, arguably the most important, building block for a successful adult life.
Face it, for a kid like Rachael Okpara, Harvard is a life changer. She was headed for success whatever she did – but not Harvard-networking-and-opportunities level successful. Not by a long shot.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rachael Okpara’s name.
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