Since 1991, the Tenley Achievement Program (TAP) has helped educate and shape the character of approximately 1,000 boys in Washington, D.C. (A sister program called the Program for Academic Leadership has done the same for young girls in the community.)
TAP focuses on the boy of average ability whose chances of graduating high school and going on to college are depressingly low in the nation’s capital. Philip McGovern, the president of the program’s parent organization, the Youth Leadership Foundation, describes TAP’s mission: “One out of three students [in the District of Columbia] never finishes high school. Between the troubled youth and the best and the brightest is the average child who holds tremendous promise. The average child is the largest group in this disadvantaged segment. Develop the average child and you can make the difference between a shop worker and an engineer, between a secretary and a business executive.”
Of the hundred or so boys enrolled in TAP’s summer program each year, many achieve significant academic gains. About half of the students improve as much as a full letter grade in two or more subjects—in only six weeks. And the program’s benefits last well into the future. Says the promotional literature, “Of those who have stayed in touch with us, 95 percent have graduated from high school; 75 percent have entered college.” It is no wonder, then, that TAP’s many supporters also include D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, a recently retired chief justice of the D.C. Superior Court, and corporate sponsors such as Lucent Technologies, Bank of America, and Charles Schwab.
Michael Barvick, director of programs at the Tenley Study Center, describes a typical day in the summer program. After three hours of classes in math, English, and history under the watchful eyes of professional teachers, boys divide up into teams and spend their afternoons playing a variety of sports. It is during this latter part of the day that most of the program’s character education takes place, as mentors pull individual boys aside for one-on-one mentoring.
If a boy is struggling in math, Barvick says, his mentor might use this as an opportunity for a lesson in perseverance. Or the young charge might not have a firm grasp on the concept of responsibility. Barvick explains the mentor might then instruct the boy to make his own bed rather than leave it for his parents to take care of. Lessons in being more helpful at home receive particular emphasis and, unsurprisingly, are popular with parents. Such real-life teachings in generosity, order, fortitude, and other virtues are calibrated to steer these boys towards self-sufficient adulthood and future roles as community leaders in their own right.
While the Tenley Achievement Program caters mainly to seventh, eighth, and ninth graders, the administration keeps tabs on its graduates through high school academic programs and courses in SAT preparation. Several alumni have returned in later years to work as coaches and mentors to other boys. During the summer of 2001, one-half of the program’s 40-person staff was made up of former enrollees. Jamien Payne, for example, has been a part of the Tenley Achievement Program as a student and a staffer since 1993. Now a sophomore at Duquesne University, where he majors in information technologies and runs track, the 20-year-old spent last summer managing TAP’s sports programs.
The biggest challenge of being sports manager wasn’t making sure the balls were put away. It was “being a big brother, not only to the kids, but to the staff, though the kids come first.” Like his little sister at home, Jamien says, the kids and the younger staff watch him closely for clues as to how they should behave. He laughs warmly as he talks about some of his responsibilities, like teaching the boys to show respect to girls. On field trips to Washington’s museums, he makes sure to tell the kids, “You’re not here to get a girlfriend or find a wife. You’re here to learn.” What has Jamien learned from TAP? “To be responsible for myself.”