As a trustee of Tufts University, I saw my share of college essays. More recently, as board chairman of Success Academy, a network of 47 K-12 charter schools in New York that enrolls 20,000 students, I had a bit of an awakening.
I read 29 personal statements from Success Academy’s current senior class; 28 of the 29 are students of color; 25 of the 29 will be first-generation college graduates. Virtually all took and passed multiple Advanced Placement exams. The average SAT scores were 654 on math and 611 on verbal, compared with 475 and 485 for a similar national demographic. Depending on one’s view of Success Academy—and charter schools in general—these facts suggest either an aspirational view that ZIP Codes need not determine educational excellence or a cynical view that 2,500 teachers and 20,000 kids and their families have joined a cult obsessed with producing outsize test scores.
Beyond the numbers, my first reaction to these essays was that they were all well-written (I even learned a new word: heteroglossia). It is fair to point out that, as a sine laude high school graduate, I am neither Strunk nor White in authoritative assessment of writing skill. Still, I have read enough bad essays to recognize a good one. Uniformly, these essays were clear, concise, grammatically correct and properly punctuated.
I’ve spent plenty of time with college admissions directors. They are on the whole thoughtful and committed professionals. Many also have a sardonic sense of humor, which helps when reading and evaluating thousands of essays. One Ivy League admissions director describes how insiders distill recurrent themes to a word or two. “Costa Rica” refers to the propensity of well-to-do high school juniors to embark on eco-tours of Central American countries. “Grandma” points to the lionization of elders—a noble sentiment, but as my friend wryly noted, grandma isn’t applying to college, you are. “Soup kitchen” captures the idea that two weeks’ work at the shelter doesn’t make you Mother Teresa.
A Success Academy scholar is as likely to live in a homeless shelter as to work in one. Gap years would more likely be devoted to caring for an autistic sibling than tending Costa Rican flora and fauna. Simple heuristics wouldn’t prove helpful in vetting a Success Academy class for college admission.
Many of the essays I read did capture the ordinary and the sweet: befriending a bodega owner in Washington Heights by shoveling his sidewalk, marking rites of passage with Ghanaian waist beads, or ascending to Senegalese womanhood by perfectly preparing a traditional meal called thieboudienne. There were also inspirational tales: competing in a relay race while sweating through a hijab, nursing a father through Covid to keep his taxi hack afloat, speaking in front of City Hall to advocate for a middle school while Mayor
Bill de Blasio
walks by without a look.
Some essays were painful to read: early childhood memories of growing up in France as the only black Muslim at school, a rap dedicated to the brother who raised a scholar whose mother’s heart “stopped beating” long ago (“the only role model in my life was my brother, RIP to my mother, my dad left but we got each other”). Finally, one haunting essay began “BANG BANG” and proceeded to detail the blood-filled aftermath of gun violence. The author plans to study premed and wants to “help people breathe again.”
The education these kids have received is akin to a vaccine against hopelessness and the virulent effects of low expectations. It is impossible to be confident that it will prove 95% effective against poverty and social injustice. But the work Success Academy educators are doing isn’t a placebo.
The broad and robust education that Success Academy students and their parents have worked so hard to achieve over the past 13 years will propel them into exciting futures. The calculus, AP world history, biology, engineering and literature classes, the dance and theater performances, the track meets and debate tournaments—all that they have absorbed and embraced—have empowered them to make the most of their lives, despite the traumas they have experienced. I wish the next mayor of New York and the next education secretary could read their essays. Then they might realize what is possible in our public education system.
Mr. Galbraith is a managing member of Kindred Capital and chairman of the Success Academy’s network board.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8