REACH-ing out

Photographs courtesy of REACH Prep

Sheltering young minds is what REACH Prep is all about.

The Stamford-based nonprofit helps high-achieving students in low-performing schools find academic success in competitive independent schools. And REACH – an acronym for Responsibility, Excellence, Achievement, Courage and Honor – does it by reaching out to talented students in schools that are under-serving them while they are still in the fourth grade.

These students – who are identified by teachers, principals, social workers and church leaders – enter the program through the Reach Prep Academy, which begins with a six-week intensive curriculum in the summer after they finish the fourth grade.

“We’re definitely about back to basics,” Peggy Sarkela, REACH’s executive director, says of the Academy’s classes, taught by six teachers from independent schools.

Math is what she calls “the holy trinity” of the nitty-gritty – fractions, decimals, percentages. Language is a focused study of grammar leading up to the study of Latin, which will be introduced in 2014 and which is still taught in independent schools as the springboard for learning foreign languages. There’s American history and literature and science, including lab time so that students will know their way around a microscope as well as a computer, though there’s time for technology, too. What’s heartening is that there’s also physical education, including swimming, and visual arts and dance classes.

“What you see in our curriculum is what’s been cut in public education,” Sarkela says.

But the introduction to the Prep Academy is just “the tip of the iceberg,” she adds.

As students return to their own schools for fifth grade, their summer experience is reinforced in Saturday morning classes. Meanwhile, REACH helps students apply to independent schools like Greenwich Academy, Fairfield Country Day School, Hackley School in Tarrytown and School of the Holy Child in Rye.

REACH then follows these students throughout middle and high school, helping them apply to college and fill out financial aid applications and ensuring they have enriching summer experiences.

The numbers speak for themselves: Of the approximately 300 students who’ve come through the program, 100 percent have been admitted to college. Eighty-four percent of the most recent class of seniors finished in four years, Sarkela adds, way above the national average (roughly 60 percent) and far exceeding the rate for the African-American and Latino communities REACH mostly serves (30 percent).

REACH does this with an annual operating budget of $1.4 million and a staff of 10 that is augmented by the faculty of six and REACH alumni who return as volunteers.

Next year marks the organization’s 20th and with applications up 79 percent, Sarkela would like to extend the nonprofit’s reach.

“The need is there,” she says. “The demand is there. We’d like to find a way to serve more kids.”


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