Breaking barriers to competitive high schools

How the TEAK Fellowship, now in its 25th year, is helping underprivileged students into some of New York City’s and the nation’s most elite institutions.

TEAK Fellowship Executive Director Denise Brown-Allen

TEAK Fellowship Executive Director Denise Brown-Allen Doug Allen Photography

As parents find themselves knee-deep in New York City’s competitive high-school admissions process, for low-income families, navigating this complex system can be a daunting one. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, 33.3% of independent school students are students of color, while low-income families consist of an even smaller percentage

The TEAK Fellowship aims to demystify this process by helping underprivileged students break barriers of entry to some of the city’s, and nation’s most elite institutions. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in October, the fellowship offers a free 10 year program offering academic and cultural enrichment opportunities to low-income students across New York City. Qualifying families must meet low income thresholds, while their children are nominated to attend a middle school academy, followed by high school, college success and career-readiness programs. The fellowship also provides financial literary advice to parents as they fund their children’s education at low cost. 

But the key here is exceptionalism – students who qualify for the fellowship must be academically driven students. But is merit enough to ensure that underprivileged students comfortably navigate through the rigorous, expensive landscape of the city’s prestigious education guilds into higher education? 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to the fellowship’s executive director, Denise Brown-Allen, to learn more about the nonprofit’s mission to provide academic opportunities to underserved students in New York City. 

What are some of the biggest obstacles to equity in education that you've noticed as both an educator and executive director of the TEAK Fellowship? 

I come from an independent school background. So I have sat on many admissions committees and seen some really bright kids offered admission to schools. And they just don't thrive as well as we would have expected compared to their peers. What we find when we dig a little deeper is, well, what's the commute like? Does that student have access to a tutor? What sort of support do they have at home? Do they have an adult who understands the independent school world or do they understand the college admissions process? Do they understand the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA], and CSS? And in many cases, the answer is no. So what we provide at TEAK is a wraparound service. What we do is we fill that gap in families, where our families believe in education, but many of them have never had to navigate this educational system. So we are there to step in and partner with them, and help them fulfill their dream through their children.

How are the fellowship’s wraparound services aligned with the nonprofit’s mission to give diverse opportunities to less privileged young people?

We’re committed to providing students, who happen to be in low income environments, opportunities to thrive in well-resourced schools and to take advantage of cultural and academic opportunities. We believe that we should provide the students with transformational experiences, and those can be academic or co-curricular experiences. We believe that by providing our students access to an excellent academic experience, and ultimately preparing them to graduate from college, they will then be in a position to go back, lift their communities, support their families and pay it forward. So we feel that just because the student has been born into a low income household, they should not be prohibited or not have access to the same opportunities as what students who were born into a more well-resourced household have. 

I’ve noticed that most of the fellowship’s programs are centered towards very exceptional students, with high levels of motivation. Is exceptional talent a prerequisite for success for students from low-income backgrounds? 

I think, certainly the students who demonstrated at their neighborhood schools, that they are high performers, and also demonstrated at their schools that they are motivated to learn that they are the ones who do the best in our program. And one of the reasons why we look at those markers, like grades and attendance, is because we're asking a lot of our students. Our students are starting our academic program at 4:30 pm on Tuesday and Thursday, so you have to have kids who want to do two sets of homework. And one thing that really blew me away my first year was that at five o'clock, these kids were raising their hands and were totally engaged in the lessons, and we're talking about seventh graders. So in terms of leveling the playing field for this particular program, and what we ask of students, I do think it’s their motivation and their desire. That really is the difference maker, as opposed to the grades. 

In light of recent worrisome trends following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action in college admissions – how is the fellowship supporting students towards achieving their goals? 

With respect to changes in due to the Supreme Court, and changes that might happen in terms of admissions policies, whether it's at the high school level or the college level, we will continue to prepare our students to be competitive applicants, and we admit students to our program regardless of their race, and or ethnicity. It’s the income threshold that must be met. And of course, these are students who have expressed a desire and it is clear that these are students who would really thrive in our program. In terms of test prep, we’re going to make sure that the students are prepared to sit for the entrance exams for independent schools, as well as the SSATs for high school, that they are attending strong, selective high schools, which thus prepare them to be competitive applicants for college.

In this current climate of rising student debt, is higher education still a viable tool for social mobility?

There’s been a lot of research and a lot of attention on whether or not college is worth it. And what we have found is that what the research still asserts, is that for low-income families, low-income students, a college degree is the best way for social mobility. But the caveat is that they have to graduate from college with as little debt as possible, right? So if the average income of a family is $60,000, we can't have our students graduating with $60,000 in debt. That just can't happen. That's a disservice to this child. It's a disservice to the family. Because our students are attending high schools with price tags of $50,000 – $60,000 a year, we work to get our students financial aid packages that are covering 90% to 95% of their tuition, the full cost of attending the school. At the high school level, on average, our parents are contributing no more than $1,200 to $1,300 a year. Our goal is to make sure that they are not going into debt to provide this opportunity to their children. Likewise, in college, we have a goal of making sure that students graduate with little or no, no debt. About half of our students have no loan packages at all, and the average loan is about $3,000.

What new initiatives is TEAK Fellowship working on ahead of its 25th anniversary? 

We’re just putting the finishing touches on our strategic plan for the next three to five years. And we plan on conducting a feasibility study to see how and where we might expand the number of students that we invite each year into the program. So our first class was 22 students, 25 years ago, and so we have a commitment to bring in 45 students a year. By 2028, we should be at 450 students. So we're going to do a feasibility study to determine if we can move that from 45 to 60. I talked a lot about our second initiative regarding careers, where our college program is a relatively new program. So we're going to pay more attention to developing a financial literacy program, which will begin in middle school and go through college, and also expand the professional development that we offer to our college students. And then the last piece is to deepen the holistic support of our students. So we've hired a director of counseling and with her help, we're going to define a middle school through college social emotional learning curriculum. We're also going to make sure that we have a strong staff and that they are fluid in adolescent development and social emotional learning. And lastly, we plan to do more in terms of experiential learning opportunities for our students, to make sure our students have a rich educational experience before they go off to college.