Though Alejandra Villamares landed squarely in the top 1 percent of her class early on in her high school career, she soon realized the achievement didn’t necessarily equal a free ride to Harvard.
“I was often basked in empty praises that led me to believe that I was bound to get into a top university,” the 18-year-old says. “But really, I had many gaps. I was not college or life ready.”
Her perspective changed during junior year, when Tatiana Poladko visited Howard High School of Technology to explain her Wilmington-based organization TeenSHARP (short for Successful, High-Achieving and Reaching Potential), which works to increase underrepresented students’ access to top colleges and to develop leaders.
“TeenSHARP helped me understand that I’m capable of achieving anything, and I have the right to demand more of the education I was receiving,” Villamares says. “Their support made me feel empowered to pursue ambitious goals and exposed me to opportunities I didn’t know existed.”
TeenSHARP pushed Villamares.
In addition to balancing rigorous course work and maintaining solid grades, Villamares took on leadership roles—with TeenSHARP opening the door. She spoke at events about Delaware’s education system and standardized testing, and she joined the board of the nonprofit education advocacy organization, DelawareCAN, to offer a student’s insight in policymaking. TeenSHARP also guided Villamares through the rigorous application process and showed her prospective scholarships, provided editing assistance with the essays, developed a strategic list of colleges to apply to and discussed her candidacy with the schools to increase the likelihood of admission.
“I would be lying if I said that it was a walk in the park,” she admits.
Villamares’ dedication earned her a spot at the highly competitive Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, on a full scholarship no less.
“TeenSHARP showed me the importance of developing academic and professional skills,” she says. “By providing me with opportunities and empowering me as a student and as a leader, they made me believe that everything is possible. Now I feel like I have the right to strive for more, to be more, to do more.”
The husband-and-wife team of Atnre Alleyne, 32, and Poladko, 33, founded nonprofit TeenSHARP in 2009 out of their common passion for enriching the lives of young people, especially in underserved neighborhoods. “This is our first child,” Poladko says with a laugh.
Alleyne went to high school in Ghana. Poladko is a native of the Ukraine. They met in graduate school at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. They both shared a love for early childhood education, youth empowerment, economic development and community work.
TeenSHARP’s beginnings started in a low-key way. The pair—living in Camden at the time—wanted to play a more active role in the life of Alleyne’s niece, mainly by mentoring Maija on her path toward college. They hosted her for one weekend a month and most of the summer, tutoring her and taking her on campus tours.
“We wanted to show her all the opportunities for enrichment and help her to envision what postsecondary opportunities can look like,” Poladko says. (Maija graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May.)
They also realized the church they attended had a high concentration of foster youth who lagged academically and lacked college aspirations. The pair figured that if they already were dedicating the time to mentor Maija, they might as well gather more kids who could benefit from the information.
They quickly developed a concept for the program and received permission from their pastor to start biweekly classes in the church basement.
The long days started at 5 a.m. by picking up their new students for the three-hour college prep classes. “However, after that first semester, we realized we weren’t moving the needle on anything,” Poladko says.
They didn’t let the setback keep them down. They focused on further understanding human development and “the game” of college admissions, Poladko says. The pair spent the next three years piloting different models until they settled on their core program in 2012.
“We focus on talented students, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, who demonstrate high potential and develop them to go to top-tier colleges,” she says. “We want to prepare them to lead change today and provide them with trajectory-altering experiences so they can compete for the top jobs in the long term. We believe that unless we can lower barriers to elite colleges, we’re not going to see diversified leadership in this country.”
Poladko describes TeenSHARP’s approach as intense. Students start in ninth grade for all-day classes and academic advisement on Saturdays, which Poladko says rival what a person might receive at an elite private high school.
The next part of the program, College Access Ambassador Training, engages students in building skills for academic success, leadership training and understanding the process of college admissions. These ambassadors learn about education policy, attend school board meetings and design projects to build college awareness in their communities.
“We had no desire to work with an elite group of kids and get them into the best colleges and jobs and not have them commit to their neighborhoods, cities and states,” Alleyne says. “We told them, ‘We’re going to invest in you heavily, and you’re going to be the changemakers and ambassadors in your community.’”
The third component connects students to enrichment opportunities at home and around the world. For example, they study abroad through U.S. Department of State scholarships and participate in entrepreneurship programs at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“Our job is to not just build their resumes so they would be attractive to top-tier colleges,” Poladko says. “Our job is to cultivate leaders. We’re developing a new level of confidence in them.”
With the final piece of TeenSHARP, Poladko and Alleyne consult each student’s parents biweekly. Parental support is an important part in the teens’ success. The program gives the parents a deep understanding of college admissions requirements and equips them with strategies to advocate for their children. Plus, parents attend the valuable campus tours.
Thanks to strong word-of-mouth and partnerships with area churches, community organizations and school districts (including the Brandywine School District in Wilmington and the Colonial School District in New Castle), TeenSHARP has guided 120 students through the college admissions process.
Poladko and Alleyne rattle off the success stories easily. One student is going to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Another student, once homeless, now attends Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Another is preparing to study engineering at the University of Delaware.
Caeli Davis, 18, battled difficulties with reading and comprehension before TeenSHARP, but through the program, she maintained a 3.6 GPA and became a key advocate in Wilmington on issues of youth literacy. As of this fall, she attends Denison University in Granville, Ohio, which boasts a 38 percent acceptance rate, on a full scholarship.
“The program helped me see what low standards I had set for myself,” says Davis, who attended Howard High School. “They helped me realize my capabilities and strengthen my leadership skills. This gave me a lot of confidence, and I began to see myself in a positive way.”
Many students from low-income households often don’t pursue admission to highly competitive colleges due to the lack of guidance or internalized expectations. These top schools, however, are among the most committed to making college education affordable for low-income youth and provide an array of services to help them succeed.
The couple thrive on showing these students the opportunities ahead and supporting them to become “the diamond they are, no matter how much rough may be around them originally,” Poladko says. “We change their mindsets and help them to lead their communities in the long run. Those are the kind of students we graduate. It’s truly rewarding to see that metamorphosis.”