'Not Just a One-Way Street:' Harvard Partners With Local High Schools

For some local students, Harvard programs have given them a glimpse of research and academics on a college campus. Some students from groups underrepresented on college campuses say the experience of working with Harvard students and faculty influenced their academic plans.
By James S. Bikales and Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz

Fahedur Fahed '22 is a student who attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin.
Fahedur Fahed '22 is a student who attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin. By Delano R. Franklin

Not many high school science classes use thermal cyclers in their experiments.

The cyclers — which can cost more than $7,000 — are too expensive for many high schools to afford. But they are just one of the cutting-edge scientific tools that students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public high school a few blocks from Harvard’s campus, can access.

CRLS students use instruments like thermal cyclers as part of the Life Sciences Outreach Program — a Harvard-run initiative in which local students visit University-affiliated labs to conduct experiments.

The University has more than a dozen programs and partnerships with local high schools, including the LSOP, that invite students to campus so they can supplement their academic work with some of the University’s resources. Though some programs are open to a range of local schools, many focus just on CRLS.

For some local students, the Harvard programs — including initiatives coordinated by University administrators, faculty, and student-run community service groups — have given them a glimpse of research and academics on a college campus. Some students from groups underrepresented on college campuses say the experience of working with Harvard students and faculty influenced their academic plans.

“Just to be sitting at the same benches that Harvard undergrads sit at, I think, is really powerful,” LSOP coordinator Alia Y. Qatarneh said.

But high school students are not the only ones reaping the benefits of these initiatives, according to University faculty members and program coordinators. Harvard affiliates said teaching high schoolers helped them hone their skills in the classroom and proved rewarding.

“You can learn so much from the people you are helping — it’s not just a one-way street,” said Lia Kiam ’21, co-president of College High-School Alliance: A Nexus for Creative Education, which provides SAT tutoring to CRLS students. “For us, as Harvard students, we can forget that there’s a school right nearby, but for them it’s very known that they’re in the Harvard community,

“To learn about their experiences is really beneficial to your own,” she said.


When CRLS biology teacher Paul McGuinness asked Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Professor Peter R. Girguis in 2006 to open up his lab to high school students, McGuinness hoped a collaboration between CRLS and Harvard would give his students the chance to “work on real, authentic, marine science projects,” he said.

Girguis accepted the request with an additional goal in mind: to inspire some students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue studies, and possibly careers, in science.

“As the child of first generation immigrants, I was acutely aware of how students from different backgrounds often don’t have opportunities to learn about science or technology firsthand,” he said. “Having the chance to be in a lab and being afforded a greater degree of autonomy or being in an environment that is very different from their high school course experience is a real moment of growth. We treat them as colleagues and as peers, and that is very empowering.”

Both local students and Harvard affiliates say one of the greatest strengths of their partnerships is that they provide role models and mentors to some students from demographics underrepresented in higher education.

“I know personally, for me, if I saw a female with an Arabic last name donning a white coat and goggles when I was in high school, I would say ‘Yes! I want to be her,’” Qatarneh said.

Kenneth N. Salim, the superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools, said this exposure to underrepresented groups in academia helps fulfill Cambridge Public Schools’ mission of promoting “equity” and “inclusion” — a mission he said is particularly important for CRLS to achieve. The Massachusetts Department of Education recently found that 28.1 percent of students in the Cambridge school district are “economically disadvantaged,” while about 60 percent are racial minorities.

“We value tremendously the support and collaboration we have with Harvard,” Salim said. “There’s a recognition that it’s not just about access for (college-bound) students, but how we can develop a college-going culture, and provide access for those who might be the first in their family to have the opportunity to go to college.”

While participants say many of Harvard’s collaborations with local high schools help support groups that are underrepresented in higher education, one organization’s mission is specifically tailored to meet this goal. High school tutoring program Crimson Summer Academy aims to help underserved students, including some from CRLS, get into and graduate from highly selective colleges.

“The statistics on low-income students who achieve admission into top colleges and universities nationally is abysmal, and their completion rates are similarly rough, so that’s our mission,” Maxine Rodburg, the program’s director, said.

As part of the initiative, a cohort of high school students lives in the Harvard dormitories on weeknights during the summers after their freshman, sophomore, and junior years. They attend classes and meet with undergraduate mentors who advise them over the summer and during the school year.

“My mentor calls me once a month. You build strong connections. She’s always available when I need help with my academics,” said Destin E. Bundu, a participant in the program and a junior at City on a Hill Dudley Square, a charter school in Roxbury. “It definitely helps in school.”

Bundu said that, because of the program, he is “breezing through my regular classes.”

Fahedur Fahed ’22, a former CSA student who now attends Harvard, said that participating in the program gave him “inspiration” to overcome obstacles to his education.

“Growing up I used to be really ashamed of my identity as a first-gen, low-income student, but once I learned about CSA and got admitted, I felt more empowered about my identity,” he said. “I always thought of Harvard as this very elitist place that I couldn’t possibly attend, but going to CSA helped me realize that I did have a place here, and it was possible for me to attend.”

Though the program focuses on the success of individual high school students, school administrators say CSA can also help shape schools’ cultures.

“The headmasters of schools we work with say that it’s not only the students who benefit, but the families, the communities, the schools that benefit too because a cluster of our kids at a school can help change the dynamic of the school or reinforce the college-going dynamic,” Rodburg said.


While partnerships with the University provide mentorship to local high school students, Harvard affiliates say the programs also benefit them.

“When I started my freshman fall, I was very nervous to tutor,” Julie O. Effron ’20, co-president of CHANCE, said. “Seeing how I have been able to refine my own skills in tutoring has been a huge change for me: the tool of being able to relate to someone and figure out why they are getting something wrong and the best way to explain it.”

Other PBHA group leaders said they also think that tutoring helps enhance their understanding of the material they teach.

“Sometimes we can really learn more from teaching other people than just playing our instrument because, especially for brass, it’s so difficult to describe what to do with your mouth and whatnot,” said Eliane S. Grace ’21, incoming director of HARMONY, a group that provides free music lessons to Cambridge-area students. “By teaching our instruments we learn more about them for ourselves.”

Graduate students, too, say offering classes to high schoolers has helped them enhance their teaching abilities.

Correna S. Cohen, curatorial fellow for academic and public programs for the Harvard Art Museums, said her experience in the Graduate Student Teacher Program — in which CRLS students visit the Harvard Art Museums several times over the course of a semester to hear lessons designed and taught by Graduate School of Education students — helped hone her skills in the classroom.

Cohen credits the program, which she now helps oversee, with helping complement her more abstract graduate studies with more practical experience working with high school students.

“Having a place where I could take all that theory and apply it and see if it worked, and have this ongoing lab course, was really great,” she said.

Several Harvard students said they find it gratifying to help local students.

“From my own experience, it’s so rewarding. The best part is seeing faces return week after week,” Effron said. “Forming relationships with these students, and sensing them becoming more confident in their abilities is the best feeling.”

Grace said she values the opportunity to “give people an outlet that they might not have otherwise known they wanted” by teaching local students music.

Some students said working with local high schoolers is one of their most important activities in college.

Mentoring for Crimson Summer Academy can be “very, very powerful” for undergraduates, Rodburg said.

“Many mentors say it’s the best part of Harvard for them, a number of them say it has been powerful enough that it has changed their career plans” to teaching, she said.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at oliver.riskin-kutz@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.

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