For most children growing up in Harlem, a decent education doesn’t come easy. Even with state aid and increased federal funding for education, the plight of the poor student from Harlem had begun to seem intractable by the late 1980s—until, that is, the birth of a number of educational alternatives and supplements in the inner city neighborhood. Prominent among these is the Harlem Educational Activities Fund.
Started in 1990 as a tutoring program at Harlem’s Police Athletic League, HEAF has become an oasis of academic success in the area. Its founder, Daniel Rose, a highly successful real estate developer and philanthropist, had always been involved with helping disadvantaged youth. But in HEAF, he saw an experiment teeming with potential. Rather than simply raising money for scholarships, Rose thought it better to take kids in middle school and offer a mentoring program that would guide them for ten years, from the seventh grade on to high school and through to college. It was a daunting task that would take large amounts of time and money. But the potential payoff could be enormous, both for the students and for the community.
At a minimum, running HEAF takes conviction. “Environment is not destiny,” says Rose. “All children can learn.” And that became the official motto of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund.
“We want these inner city minority children to enter the mainstream of American life. We prepare our youngsters to compete successfully in a world that is increasingly credentialed and high-tech, objectively meritocratic, and color-neutral,” he says. The last of these is given special emphasis.
How does it work? Guidance counselors in area middle schools are told to look out for children they believe can excel, children who are willing to work hard and would benefit from HEAF’s assistance. Those students then enter the program in junior high and usually go on to extremely competitive high schools in the area, such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. At these schools, Rose points out, students will be in an environment where learning is the norm, not the exception.
What HEAF does is twofold: It pays a portion of the student’s tuition, roughly $2,000 each year for a decade of education. That’s $20,000 to take a 12-year-old from Harlem and turn him or her into a college graduate. And throughout the entire ten years, the student is constantly mentored. Tutoring and counseling take place at the HEAF office during the week and on weekends.
The program is intensive, which is a major reason for its stunning success: All students who participate in HEAF at the middle school level are accepted into competitive preparatory high schools. And every single high schooler who has completed the college preparation program has been accepted into a four-year college, including Columbia, Cornell, NYU, and Bryn Mawr.
On top of the academic programs is HEAF’s extraordinary chess center, founded by Maurice Ashley, the first black International Chess Grandmaster. HEAF chess teams have won a total of six national championships. Rose stresses the chess component because it is a model for life. “You plan your moves in anticipation of the endgame,” he says. And that endgame is your career—after planning moves as early as in middle school.
There are many ways to help support HEAF, itself incorporated as a tax-deductible charity. You can make a financial donation to specific programs or special funds, make an in-kind contribution from their “wish-list” (including books, office furniture, and computers), give a testamentary gift to HEAF’s endowment, or even donate frequent flyer miles so that children can travel to various chess tournaments nationwide and to and from college campuses.
“Our effectiveness is limited only by our funds,” says Rose. “With greater resources, we can help more children, we can help other groups to replicate what we do, and we can promote an even higher level of service.” Currently there are 90 students in colleges across America, thanks to HEAF. Rose would love to see that number grow.