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Karim Abouelnaga Headshot

Practice Makes Perfect

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As the son of Egyptian immigrants, a single mother raised me after my father passed away when I was 13. I sold candy on school-nights and weekends alongside my brothers to keep my family off the streets.

Despite my desire to succeed, my early struggle was the inevitable result of the limited resources and guidance in my public school. Where I grew up, most poor and minority children forfeit their dreams because they have difficulty marshaling resources to succeed in the classroom. My path was different.

Fortunately, I benefitted from non-profits, such as New York Needs You and Rewarding Achievement, which gave me the chance to work with college graduate mentors and role models. In large part, their belief in me and investment in my success allowed me to escape a dead-end life.

One of the biggest problems in education reform today is that many of the initiatives to improve the public education system are done from an "outside-looking in" perspective. Our most admirable education reformers have never attended or gone through an inner-city public school themselves.

Until 2010, when I learned about the achievement gap, I was ignorant of all of the sociological influences at play in education. The achievement gap is the disparity in academic achievement between poor, minority students and their affluent counterparts.

In 2009, McKinsey & Company estimated that it was costing our economy $310 - $525 billion in GDP each year, which is economic equivalent of a permanent national recession. The United States Census published a report forecasting that the number of minority students--whom are most affected by the achievement gap--would comprise more than 50 percent of the school-aged population by 2023, which exacerbate the disparities in our economy.

While I could not articulate this problem until college, it is one I know intimately, as it plagued my childhood, hobbled the life prospects of my closest childhood friends, and indelibly impacted my community. Compelled by a moral obligation to address this problem, I brought together a group of friends at Cornell in 2011 to go beyond talking about the inequities in education through our nonprofit called Practice Makes Perfect (PMP).

This organization works to narrow the achievement gap by providing low-income students with mentorship and resources that are otherwise not available in their inner-city public schools. PMP applies sound business practices through an array of value-add components to effectively address the achievement gap, teenage unemployment, college-readiness, community engagement, and future-teacher development programs.

Specifically, we provide college students with an unparalleled experience to see first-hand what it is like to be a teacher in an inner-city classroom. And we provide ambitious middle school and high school students with high school and college readiness, and remediation for the students that need it most during the academic year.

For the past three years, PMP has been tackling the achievement gap by addressing one of the root causes - the summer learning loss. Research has found that two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower and higher income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities when students lose between 2.5 to 3.5 months of academic learning each summer. Furthermore, teachers who work with low-income students that were recently surveyed said that they spend anywhere from four to six weeks re-teaching content.

If we do the math, students, theoretically forego five months of their education every single year - 3.5 months from the summer slide plus 1.5 months from covering last year's material. To me, this is both an economic loss and social injustice. If our children are not engaged over the summer, it is almost as if we are taking the standard ten-month school year and transforming it into a five-month school year.

Today, PMP is a comprehensive summer education program with a proven "near-peer" model to support students from grade one through college matriculation. Our programs pair skills development for younger students with leadership development, career training, and college prep for older students.

Through a unique multi-relational approach, PMP pairs academically struggling elementary and middle school students with older, higher achieving mentor peers from the same inner-city neighborhoods, all under the instruction of trained college interns and supervision of certified teachers for a six-week, full-day academic experience. Now with three programs completed, we know this works.

This past summer provided incredible justification. Among the parents surveyed, 100 percent said they would recommend PMP to other parents. We had students telling their college teachers that they wished they could be their teachers forever.

PMP has directly impacted almost 400 students and indirectly impacted thousands more through its community service efforts over the last three years. PMP provides a novel solution for a bottom-of-the-pyramid problem in the United States, while becoming the most cost efficient provider of summer enrichment. PMP helps to eliminate the summer learning loss, helping students return to school the following year, not three months behind, but one month ahead.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Ashoka Changemakers, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative in recognition of the "My Voice, Our City" competition, which aims to empower black and Latino young men ages 16-24. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about "My Voice, Our City", click here; about Ashoka Changemakers, click here; and about the Young Men's Initiative, click here.