Why Takeoff Space?

Our bottom line is that Takeoff Space will change the landscape of achievement for academically brilliant low-income teenagers who today rarely make it to the top colleges where they belong. We’re not going to accept that the disruptive environments into which they get born should get in the way of success. Through our peer group mentoring, we’ll simulate the support and encouragement professional teeagers get from their parents, and we’ll help far more talented but disadvantaged kids attain their dreams.

The reality of low-income underachievement

Low-income underachievement in the United States is a well-documented problem. Students from the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution make up only 14 percent of enrollment at the most competitive universities. They are less likely to apply to such schools than those from better off families. The reasons include the tendency of counselors to have lower-income students focus on state universities; a lack of awareness that elite universities with generous financial aid can in fact work out cheaper than state schools; and a lack of parental follow through when families don’t contain adults with college experience.

Professional parents will often spend endless hours helping their kids research and put together the best possible college applications. And they’ll often hire college coaches as well. Even if high school guidance counselors do give helpful advice, the lack of follow-through at home makes it unlikely that teenagers with their flighty attention spans will have the focus to get things done — even assuming they understand and have the organizational ability to process the myriad complexities of an application process geared to families of privilege.

Why top students at schools such as Lowell High have poor college outcomes

Jonathan got to meet top academic performers at Lowell High School, a school serving a heavily immigrant and disadvantaged population in the fourth largest municipality of Massachusetts. He discovered that the high achievers generally have poor outcomes, despite extraordinary academic performance. Only a handful each year end up at top colleges. Parents are generally uninvolved in their kids’ education and don’t know they have the right to discuss the subject with school teachers and counselors.

Lowell High School students, especially those in one-parent families, must often work long hours after school, sometimes in two or more part-time jobs, to support their families and therefore have little time for the extracurricular activities that elite colleges prize. School counselors rarely advocate for these kids to colleges and don’t adequately explain their many positive attributes in the face of adversity. Students often apply for inappropriate colleges such as out of state public universities that won’t offer financial aid to non-residents.

Problem issues extend beyond the poorest: students whose parents earn adequate income and therefore don’t qualify for free college application and test fees face some of the biggest problems if their parents don’t understand or want to pay for such essentials connected with applying to college, feeling that their kids will be best off at the local state campus while working at a fast-food joint to being in family income.

How Takeoff Space will innovate to solve the problem

Takeoff Space will tackle these problems by offering not so much advising as a simulation of the nurturing environment offered by professional families who help their kids understand their opportunities and stand by them to ensure their applications are completed as well as possible.

Takeoff Space will differ from other programs and innovate with its family focus: brilliant and enthusiastic undergraduates at top universities and colleges will host and sit down with our participants to research and complete their applications, helping them get through the maze of requirements and put their best efforts forward.

Having a caring big brother or big sister will ensure the high schoolers get to know the opportunities open to them and are motivated not only to strive for the best they can achieve, but to apply a systematic approach to selecting appropriate colleges and scholarships and to advocating for themselves in the complex college application process.

Takeoff Space will also have local staff to liaise with participant families, explain the importance of higher education, and help create more supportive family environments for program participants. Where referrals are needed to respond to deep family or other personal issues such as mental health problems, Takeoff Space will work with local welfare institutions to offer appropriate specialized follow-up and support.

Takeoff Space Pilot Program

Now that we have raised sufficient funding through a successful crowdfunding campaign, we are launching a pilot program expected to run over six weeks during spring 2017. While the program will eventually be operated by Takeoff Space at a number of area campuses and its planning and operations will be our sole responsibility, we are in the process of satisfying requirements to run our pilot at MIT given the strong MIT student and alumnus focus of our team and the friendly connections we have built on the MIT campus. We expect to reach agreement with MIT subject to meeting MIT’s stringent but necessary and indeed helpful regulations for safe conduct of programs for minors on campus and completion of incorporation as a Massachusetts nonprofit.

Once we have MIT’s approval, selected high-achieving high-school students entering their senior year will visit MIT weekly for three-hour sessions to be hosted by undergraduates trained by Takeoff Space to help our participants research college choices, determine testing and other requirements and plan for them, and get applications underway.

Weʼll also run a number of group activities to help build self-confidence as well as introduce participants to the range of programs and opportunities available at a major educational institution. A dining and socializing opportunity will bring each visit to to a conclusion. A small number of external enrichment visits, such as to an area museum of a schools concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will also be included. We will visit families regularly to explain progress in our program and gain their support for the future college and career trajectory their children desire.

Evaluation activities will take place throughout the program so as to develop and improve our offering.

We have begun recruitment of mentor students and are delighted to have found a number of energetic and committed people to start building our team. We will conduct team training prior to opening our program.

Recruitment of eligible high school participants will focus on identifying and interviewing the highest achievers of the 2016/2017 junior class at one or more high schools with substantial disadvantaged populations, and will include visits to families as part of the process so that families are aware of the advantages of the program and support their kidsʼ participation as well as sign off on it.

We plan to continue family involvement through such activities as facilitating visits for parents to their children’s high school counselors, arranging interpreters as needed for those parents new to the English language so that they can participate fully in discussing their children’s futures.

While we will focus on those with the greatest financial deprivation, we are aware that finances are not the sole determinant of need and will consider all academically-brilliant students whose families lack the capacity to help them with their college planning and applications, a problem that is particularly common to families who have recently immigrated to the USA and where parents have not completed higher education and therefore find it hard to advise their children on the range of educational opportunities available.

Plans for fall 2017 and beyond

Subject to successful further fundraising, the program will continue serving the students attending during spring 2016 during fall 2017. During the spring term, we will focus on discussing the range of educational opportunities, college screening, having students prepare draft essays and identifying potential scholarships to apply for as well as supplementary requirements for specific colleges so they can register for appropriate tests. During the fall term, we will focus on making sure all appropriate tests are completed, recommendation letters assembled, and admission and scholarship applications are completed to a high standard as well as helping participants establish contact with diversity officers and other appropriate admissions personnel at their desired colleges and advocating for the students to those colleges.

We plan to conclude our program with a full weekend workshop during which college applications will be finalized.

Starting spring 2018, we plan to extend the program to a range of Boston and Merrimack Valley communities and to involve other leading universities such as Harvard, Tufts, and Brandeis in our efforts. Our goal is to develop a model capable of being replicated successfully on a national scale.

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