When Rachelle Brown-Mitchell toured Harvard on Saturday, June 16, the avid reader was especially impressed by Widener Library.
But Brown-Mitchell, who said she’s considering law school one day, won’t be able to study there for at least a few years. She’s only 11.
The student at the Boston public school Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy in Hyde Park visited Harvard as part of a day-long early college awareness program that invited a group of fourth and fifth graders from two Boston public schools, along with their parents, to campus for an event featuring collaborative science experiments, discussions with college undergraduates, and Harvard campus tours.
Saturday’s event, which welcomed students from the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy and Hennigan Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, marked the first time that Harvard has invited both parents and students to its outreach programs.
"The program is an attempt, among others, to break down the barriers children and families might perceive about the lack of accessibility of college,” said Maile Takahashi, who serves as Harvard’s director of community programming.
Joan Matsalia— who is a co-manager of the event’s organizer, the Harvard Achievement Support Initiative—said that research points to parent engagement as an important factor in the academic success of children.
“This event offered a new way for families to get exposure to college and the resources that are available early, during elementary school," she said.
During the day, students and parents from the two schools participated in a series of science experiments and demonstrations organized by Kathryn A. Hollar, director of educational programs at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Hollar said that the activities were aimed at teaching students about everyday materials such as food additives and thickeners, cool polymers, and groundbreaking engineered materials. She said that she wanted to show participants that “great science does not always require expensive equipment and expensive laboratories. It is about ingenuity and sometimes simple experiments.
Hollar noted that, though these students live in a city that is filled with high tech companies, these resources and opportunities might feel inaccessible. She added that it is important for them to know that with education and training, they can have careers in these companies and fields.
“Combining science and engineering with the early college awareness components via the partnership between HASI and SEAS helps set the stage for these talented and enthusiastic students to pursue rewarding career opportunities in high tech fields,” Hollar wrote in an email to The Crimson.
The event also featured a panel of current Harvard students, including Annika J. Nielsen ’15, who attended Boston public schools before coming to Harvard. The panel fielded questions both parents and students, ranging from whether the transition to college is a big step or a natural process to whether or not students sleep in bunk beds in college.
Karen Wontan, family education coordinator from the Boston Public Schools’ program Parent University, also spoke at the event about the importance of family engagement in successful education. Harvard recently partnered with Parent University to bring Families Engaged in Learning sessions to families at the John Marshall School in Boston, according to Matsalia.
Wontan commented that visiting campus gave parents a physical reference, “a picture in their mind,” of future possibilities for their children. She also said that it would be beneficial to have college awareness programs for all grades, starting in kindergarten.
Staff, parents, and students from the two schools said the event was a both enjoyable and informative way to share the values of education with their communities.
“This has been an incredible day for all of us,” said Maria Cordon, principal of Hennigan Elementary School, at the end of the day. “To be able to bring my fourth and fifth graders and their parents to Harvard has just been an amazing opportunity.”
Deandra Williams, family and community outreach coordinator at Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, said that it is important for children and families to understand “the connection between elementary school and college” and to understand what steps they can take now to reach college in the future.
“The highlight was seeing all the excitement from the younger students and how engaged they were with the speakers and how interested they are in college in general,” said James Prince, an Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy parent. “I don’t remember being this interested in college when I was nine or ten years old. It’s just exciting seeing how excited they are about their own futures.”
—Staff writer Alyza J. Sebenius can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.