THE BLOG
09/27/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

The 'Grit' Factor

I am always happy when attention is paid to the plight of inner-city students. Paul Tough's new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character reminds readers that children who grow up in low-income households face numerous challenges that their wealthier peers do not. They not only hear fewer words and read fewer books; they encounter far more stress and, as a result, tend to have diminished control over their own emotions and decision-making.

But the stereotype of poor, academically-lagging student is a dangerous one. At NJ SEEDS, where I am the director of education, our newest students come from families with an average combined parental income of $34,682 annually. Yet the students in our Scholars Program consistently score higher on the SAT than the average student at the wealthiest suburban public schools. Eleven percent of our Scholars have gone on to Ivy League schools. Sixty-seven percent of the Scholars have gone on to colleges ranked by Barron's as either "Most Competitive" or "Highly Competitive."

The mission of SEEDS is to prepare students for admission to independent schools, colleges and universities with robust financial aid packages directly from the schools. Each year, we are flooded with applications from low-income students with great potential. In fact, we got 550 applications last year for 125 spots in our Scholars Program alone (SEEDS also has two other academic programs with rigorous admissions processes). Students must submit transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation and essays. To find the students most likely to thrive in rigorous academic environments, we require applicants to take a qualifying exam and interview with SEEDS. We then accept approximately 125 into our three-week, residential Summer Challenge program. Finally, we invite approximately 95 Scholars -- those who have excelled academically and socially in Summer Challenge -- to continue to our Scholars Academy. Those 95 will take classes every Saturday for a year and then complete another three week residential academic "Capstone Experience." To date, more than 1,700 have graduated from our three programs.

"Marvin" is an example of a typical SEEDS student. He went through the SEEDS Scholars Program, received a full-financial aid package to attend a private boys' school in New Jersey and is now a sophomore at Stanford. There are thousands of boys like Marvin out there. All of them deserve a chance to succeed. Of course, programs like SEEDS rely upon donations to cover operating expenses. (It costs approximately $15,000 to educate and place each student, but that funding leverages some $300,000 in financial aid by the time our students finish college.)

In his book, Tough cites a Pew Research study that shows that 87 to 94 percent of Americans agree with the statement, "Our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed." Making it possible for high-achieving, low-income students to get a good education is a great way to begin.

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