When news broke that Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna was admitted to all eight Ivy League schools, I’m guessing more than one person had the same reaction as someone on Facebook that there must be “something in the water” at Elmont Memorial High School. After all, Augusta isn’t the first Elmont student to be admitted to all the Ivies last year, as I wrote, Harold Ekeh was as well.
I was lucky enough to meet both Harold and Augusta when I visited Elmont last spring, and they are impressive young people. They worked hard and deserve every accolade that comes their way.
But there’s something important to be said, which is that there are a lot of impressive young people all over the country and many don’t succeed. For me a key question is: What help and support from their school did Harold and Augusta (and their fellow classmates) receive to be so successful?
Because, I should note, Elmont’s success does not begin and end with a couple of top students.
Serving a mostly working-class population of students of color mostly African Americans, but also a significant number of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America Elmont graduated 92 percent of its entering cohort in 2015, 43 percent with an advanced designation. (New York state graduated 78 percent of its students, 32 percent of whom had earned an advanced designation.) More than 90 percent of Elmont’s 2015 graduating class went on to two- or four-year colleges, including MIT, Cornell, and many of the State University of New York colleges.
So what does Elmont do?
An article in Black Enterprise began to answer that question, quoting Principal Kevin Dougherty on the Elmont teachers who have high expectations and the counseling staff who work hard to help every student develop and reach ambitious goals.
All true. But on an even deeper level, Elmont has systems that support those high expectations. So, for example, it began a science research program 10 years ago, with the intent of providing students the opportunity to do the kind of research that would launch them into the world of science. Both Augusta and Harold are Intel Science Finalists, which no doubt played a role in the desire of colleges to want them to enroll.
The research program, by the way, is not fancy. It is conducted in a small classroom really, a large office crammed with equipment and used by many students. But it is taught by dedicated teachers, David Spinnato and Michelle Flannery.
And they aren’t the only dedicated teachers at Elmont. The place is chockablock with them. They carefully develop lessons, think through what misconceptions students might have about the material, and work to inspire and engage students. They continually reach for excellence in every field, from sports to drama to social studies and on and on, manifesting in its award-winning Model U.N. team, basketball team, drama program, and more.
That kind of consistent excellence does not happen by accident. It is the result of many years of work that began when Diane Scricca became principal of Elmont in 1990 and continued under the leadership of Al Harper, first, and then John Capozzi, who left last year to become assistant superintendent for the district.
Do you want proof Elmont wasn’t a fluke but the result of the hard work of educators who know what they’re doing? Here’s a little piece of evidence. When Scricca left Elmont 13 years ago, she went to the nearby district of Malverne as an assistant superintendent, where she put in place systems similar to those she put in place at Elmont.
And this year Malverne High School is celebrating the fact that senior Ashley Akaeze was accepted at five of the Ivies, Stanford, and quite a few other colleges. But, like at Elmont, it’s not just about Ashley; at least 60 percent of Malverne seniors will be graduating with an advanced designation this year and enrolling in colleges around New York and the nation.
If you want a little bit of hope that we have educators in this country who know how to help students reach high goals, Elmont and Malverne are great places to find it.