Why Takeoff Space?
Our bottom line is that Takeoff Space changes 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 simulate the support and encouragement professional teenagers 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
Before founding Takeoff Space 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 bring in family income.
How Takeoff Space will innovate to solve the problem
Takeoff Space tackles 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 differs from other programs and innovates with its family focus: brilliant and enthusiastic undergraduates at top universities and colleges 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 ensures 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.
As our funding improves, Takeoff Space is also planning to 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 works with local welfare institutions to offer appropriate specialized follow-up and support.
Takeoff Space Pilot Program
Takeoff Space’s pilot program is underway as of October, 2019. While we plan future programs to start in the spring with two sessions of about six to eight weeks, we are starting with a single set of meetings over eight weeks, reflecting limited initial funding and a desire to get going as the opportunity arises.
Our criteria for high school student recruitment revolve around acquiring top talent but accept the reality that it does not always reveal itself in academic scores. We do recruit on the basis of top performance in high school, looking for students in the top few percent of their class with GPA above 4.0 and evidence of taking on a challenging range of AP classes.
However, we also understand that immigrant status or trauma in life often seen in disadvantaged students can depress scores in standardized testing, where income has shown to correlate with results, so we also accept students who may be just below the very top but have challenged themselves to excel beyond expectations. They may not have taken many AP classes or their SAT results may be only average, but we will consider helping them if we feel their efforts and potential are such that they can get admitted to a leading private school that offers high levels of financial aid.
Recruitment started last spring with a visit to a Lowell High School advanced placement math class by Takeoff Space CEO Jonathan Richmond and team member Sim Dy (a Lowell High School graduate). A challenging calculus class was a good place to start looking for talent and many of our current intake came from that encounter. Students we met referred us to friends, and so we ended up with a good mix of both very high achievement and high potential for achievement students.
Selection of students included visits to family homes and discussions with parents or guardians who were helped to understand what we are offering. We have found that the majority of the students live in conditions of poverty, need to work long-hours in afterschool employment to support their families, and suffer trauma from fractured family relations. In two cases, it has been necessary to perform duties of mandated reporting of abuse. All of the students are resilient, as captured by Dan Jackson’s Portraits of Resilience: they may have faced severe setbacks but they are determined to succeed.
Fundraising took place over the summer and is continuing with a focus on acquiring both individual donations and inviting the interest of foundations. We have six Harvard College undergraduates working for us on either a work-study or volunteer basis. Training took place at Harvard, and covered issues of mentoring for college admissions such as selecting appropriate colleges given high school student qualifications and interests and effective essay writing. All mentors were required to complete Mandated Reporter training.
Each high school participant was allocated to a student-mentor responsible for maintaining a one-on-one relationship throughout the program. Two Lowell High School students were assigned to each Harvard student. The group has been meeting weekly at weekends at Wee Thai Food in Lowell. Harvard students arrive by Uber or Lyft cars fully-paid by Takeoff Space to keep trip time to around 35-40 minutes each way. Mentoring sessions go from 10 am to 12 pm and are followed by an Asian lunch, but also ice-cream to ensure the kids are happy!
High-school students spend part of the two hours working directly with their Harvard mentor and the rest of the time working on college selection, essay writing, or form completion. We exist because the parents of our kids are generally unfamiliar with issues in college application since they are immigrants or have not been to college themselves. We therefore seek to supplement what our kids’ parents can offer to bring them to the same level as kids of professional parents. Because homes are often not conducive to progress on complex writing projects, the time spent in the hour students work alone in the restaurants is valuable.
We noticed a radical change in high-school student ambitions when the Harvard mentors introduced them to colleges and universities new to them. The process of reviewing and selecting colleges resulted in major shifts in plans. Students who would have applied only to state campuses have run the net price calculators and discovered that private colleges are often much cheaper because they offer high levels of financial aid.
As the program has developed, mentors have helped the Lowell High School students select and think about writing the principal Common Application essay and also plan for and timetable supplementary essays demanded by many colleges. Mentors have made contact with the high school students during the week to encourage progress while recognizing that some of them work until 10 pm at night to earn money to support their families and then have to come home to do homework for the high school. To ensure all supplementary essays – some really quite difficult – are completed, we have scheduled an all-day Boot Camp to be held on November 17 in the meeting room of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association to whom we are deeply grateful for making the space available.
In addition to giving essential help without which the volume of essays being produced would never have been possible, the Harvard students have been assisting with logistics of form completion to ensure accuracy and eliminate the errors that are all too easily made. Where technical questions arise, our college admissions and financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has been consulted and given valuable advice. Mark has also helped advise on complex financial aid situations.
The fall program will be completed with checking and submission of college applications and writing of recommendations by the Harvard mentors for each of their mentees. These letters are important for informing colleges of the special circumstances as well as efforts of a group of hard-working but disadvantaged kids who deserve a better future. The letters will be transmitted with some extra comments by Jonathan Richmond.
We plan to give one-on-one support for interview preparation as we are advised that students have been invited to attend interviews and we will attempt to facilitate visits to colleges in the events interviews are required at college locations. Where students are accepted at out-of-state colleges we will attempt to facilitate visits to help them make decisions, assisted by a generous donation of air travel by Southwest Airlines.
Future Program Plans
Takeoff Space plans to convert from the pressured if successful format of a one-term program to a two-term sequence starting Spring 2020, designed to reduce incorporate college visits as well as enrichment activities. We also plan to engage more with parents, and encourage them to learn more about their children’s education and attend meetings with counselors at Lowell High School, something less educated parents rarely do. Doing so will help parents feel more involved and responsible for designing the best outcomes for their children and will also foster a sense of community belonging.
We feel we can serve many more students at Lowell High School as well as expand to other high schools with high disadvantaged populations, however our growth will be determined by our ability to attract donations. We are currently in the process of fundraising, which can be difficult before a year of results are produced and which may constrain our activities during the remainder of our first year of operations. Southwest Airlines has very kindly accepted our request for support and offered a number of free air tickets for our kids to conduct out-of-state college visits.