college prep

At hands-on program, black and Latino boys aim for selective colleges

PHOTO: Sabrina Rodriguez
In the program, students do research and learn more about the education system and how it affects them as black and Latino young men.

When Leo Herrera is at School for Excellence, a small high school in the Bronx, it can be hard to concentrate.

Sometimes, Herrera says, it’s girls. Sometimes, it’s feeling surrounded by classmates “that don’t really care and can hold you back.”

But when he’s at SAT prep or debating with peers in a classroom at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, he’s more focused than ever. Herrera is part of a city program designed to send black and Latino male students to college. And not just any college: selective, four-year schools, perhaps out of New York City altogether.

“This program is completely different than my school,” Herrera said during an SAT prep session one Wednesday this summer. “In my school, I personally have distractions that take me off sometimes. But luckily I’ve got these guys that always keep me on track and remind me where I want to go.”

The program is called Urban Ambassadors, and is focused on a small group of promising students handpicked from high schools that don’t typically send many (or any) students to selective colleges. The students then get academic tutoring, help with college applications, and one-on-one mentoring, and are surrounded each week by a very motivated group of peers.

The result is something like the Posse Foundation scholarships, which send low-income students to colleges in groups, but for college preparation. So far it’s had impressive results: Of the program’s two groups of graduating seniors so far, 22 of 27 in the first cohort enrolled in college, according to Ainsley Rudolfo, the program’s director. This past year, 26 of 28 students enrolled at colleges, including Syracuse University, Middlebury College, Brandeis College, and Drexel University.

"It’s been infectious, with kids coming back and recommending it to their peers."Perry Rainey, Brooklyn School for Math and Research principal

“We know that black and Latino boys tend to look at their peers in particular for college,” Rudolfo said. “So our thought with the program was, could we develop these young men that are all about college? And would their peers then follow them and say, ‘I want to be like them’?”

To get into the program, which is overseen by the Department of Education’s equity and access division, students must qualify for free or reduced lunch and have at least a 2.5 grade point average, then go through an application process and interview. Rudolfo says they aren’t necessarily looking for a school’s top academic performers, but they are looking for dedication and charisma.

Its students commit to an intensive schedule over their junior and senior years of high school. Herrera has spent his summer weekdays at Medgar Evers, and will continue to spend his Saturdays with the group for two years. The students visit colleges, get special leadership training, and prepare to take the SAT together in December of their senior year.

On a recent Wednesday, students were preparing for a debate about whether the Common Core standards helps black and Latino students. More than 20 rising juniors from across the city were discussing who they would impersonate — President Barack Obama, Rev. Al Sharpton, or Chancellor Carmen Fariña. (Kellon Garrick, a rising junior at Urban Assembly for Law and Justice in Brooklyn, asked if picking a less well-known character, like Diane Ravitch or the police commissioner William Bratton, could qualify him for extra credit.)

The goal, Rudolfo explained, is to give students a better sense of what has shaped their own education.

Principal Perry Rainey, center, with past and current Urban Ambassador students from his school. (Courtesy of Perry Rainey)
These are 15 past and current Urban Ambassador students from Brooklyn School for Math and Research, where Principal Perry Rainey, center, actively encourages students to join the program. (Courtesy of Perry Rainey)

“We’re learning about how the system affects us so we can make informed decisions,” Garrick said.

The program was founded in 2012, in partnership with Hip Hop 4 Life, a youth empowerment organization, just months after the city launched the Young Men’s Initiative, designed to increase college- and career-readiness of black and Latino young men in the city.

Urban Ambassadors is too small to tackle more than a corner of that problem, and its first students are just now entering their sophomore year of college, making it too early to tell whether the program will succeed in helping its students surpass the roadblocks that keep many similar students from graduating. In 2010, the college graduation rate for Latino male students was 10 percent lower than the national average for male students; for black males, it was 22 percent lower.

But as the city has started high schools and funded anti-violence programs through the Young Men’s Initiative, Urban Ambassadors fills a different gap, helping students with academic potential who are already in high schools that can’t offer the same kind of sustained, one-on-one guidance.

Before their debate that Wednesday, the students wrapped up a project focused on how they could create a “personal brand” to help during their college searches, creating DVD cases with concise descriptions of themselves.

Those activities and others are aimed at making students feel confident in their ability to pitch themselves to college interviewers, and comfortable with their peers, who they call brothers. During school breaks, students visit colleges to get a better idea of what colleges look like, visiting schools like Morehouse College, Georgetown University, and SUNY Albany.

“Without the program, I just don’t know — I didn’t know what a college campus looked like,” said Justin Summers, a rising senior at Brooklyn School for Math and Research. “And now my vision is really going out of state and being successful.”

"Without the program, I just don’t know — I didn’t know what a college campus looked like."Justin Summers, student at Brooklyn School for Math and Research

Edward Fergus, an education professor at New York University, said it’s important that programs aimed at getting low-income students into college offer chances for students to have conversations with college students with similar backgrounds.

It’s critical that students are “gaining a better sense of not only what it means to go to college,” he said, “but also how much they envision themselves being ready for college.”

Students acknowledge that Urban Ambassadors, which has an annual budget of $175,000 for each cohort, offers resources their high schools can’t, since many of their schools do not send many students to four-year schools and have guidance offices that are already stretched thin. At School for Excellence, 12 percent of graduates went on to a four-year university in 2014. At Pan American High School in Queens, which is designed for students who are new to the country, one-quarter of seniors that year went on to a two-year CUNY program, but almost none went into four-year programs.

“Where I come from, you just don’t get opportunities like this every day,” Herrera said. “My school is not that good of a school, so we don’t have SAT prep classes and that’s something I’ve always wanted.”

PHOTO: Sabrina Rodriguez
Kellon Garrick, right, a rising junior at Urban Assembly for Law and Justice, prepares for an in-class debate on Common Core.

Perry Rainey, principal of the Brooklyn School for Math and Research, says the program offers some resources that a small school like his cannot pay for. He is such a strong proponent of Urban Ambassadors, which currently includes 12 of his students, that the school hosts an open house for parents of 10th graders to explain why they should encourage their kids to apply.

“The program really helps those kids that need an extra push,” said Rainey. “It’s been infectious, with kids coming back and recommending it to their peers.”

Efrin Martinez, a rising senior at Pan American International High School, came to New York from Dominican Republic just two years ago. For him, the group is more than just a chance to visit colleges. The group has helped him improve his English, adjust to his new surroundings, and convince him that attending college is a realistic prospect.

“It’s not that there aren’t students in my school that want to go to college and do good,” Martinez said. “But for us, it’s about making sure we all succeed, because I want my brothers to go far too.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”