With the holiday season in full swing, I’d like to take a moment and recognize a man who is helping to change the world one child at a time.
I went to the Opportunity Charter School this morning in Harlem with Dr. Michael Carrera, a visionary educator who works at The Children’s Aid Society. The charter was begun by Len Goldberg in 2004 to focus on kids with special needs, with the expectation that they too should graduate from high school. The school has students from sixth through twelfth grades; two-thirds of them graduate, versus one-third in a New York City public school that serves minority populations in underprivileged areas. There are approximately 25 students in each classroom, 75 in each grade. There are 3,000 applications for 160 spots each year.
Dr. Carrera’s Family Life Sexuality Education program is grafted onto the regular classroom experience to address an alarming statistic he shared with me: in New York City, there is only a 2 percent graduation rate from college for those girls who have kids in their teens. He noted the importance of embracing the students in all aspects of their lives. “We want them to feel that they have a bright future if they postpone childbirth,” he said. He told me that the key to the game is perseverance. “We show up every day and give them attention and instruction. The kids come here with care deficits; 70 percent of them have single parents, many of them have been foster children or have lived with aunts/uncles or grandparents.”
The program has three aspects: Cognitive (how to learn), Affective (how kids feel) and Communication (get kids to speak in an open way, even about relationships and sex). The children get lots of support in the form of tutoring, after school athletics and an alumni program. Dr. Carrera also has a full-time medical staffer at every one of his centers, who coordinates visits to the dentist and internist. “We make sure they go…no excuses,” he quipped.
Among the classes at the Opportunity Charter School are financial literacy, human biology and entrepreneurship. We actually went to a class this morning where kids were creating branded sweatshirts and developing a marketing plan for them. They organized themselves into divisions; one of the groups was in finance, another for production, another for marketing and finally for sales. They were debating pricing, advertising and the big idea for the launch. In another class, Dr. Carrera challenged the students to a pop quiz with the award being free pizza for lunch for the entire eighth grade.
Dr. Carrera reminds me of a charismatic high school football coach. He is supportive of both the students and teachers. He challenges them to defy the odds and graduate. He is a bundle of energy, bounding up four flights of stairs to the crowded office with 19 teachers preparing for class. He has taken the program into Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee and Tulsa. He raises all of the money for the program privately, from Wall Street benefactors including his own son. This is a perfect story for the holidays, which exemplifies how one person can help change the lives of children for the better.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.