Alejandra Villamares stood in front of the Howard High School of Technology Class of 2017 earlier this month and delivered her salutatorian speech. In the audience, along with her family and friends, was Tatiana Poladko, CEO and founder of TeenSHARP.
Poladko started the New Jersey -based organization, whose mission is to prepare students of color for the nation’s top colleges, with her husband Antre Alleyne in 2009. Through grants from Barclays, AmeriCorps and other local businesses, Poladko and Alleyne were able to open TeenSHARP Delaware, at the Community Services Building in Wilmington.
Villamares was one of nine students in the local chapter’s first graduating class.
In the fall, she will attend the prestigious Wesleyan University in Connecticut, on a full academic scholarship. Poladko is happy to have played a role in getting Villamares to college.
“Because Howard High School is a vocational school, Alejandra hadn’t had exposure to college-level coursework,” Poladko explained. “TeenSHARP was able to help her fill those gaps. Without the program, she would not be attending one of the bet schools in the nation.”
When asked why she and Alleyne chose Wilmington as the site of organization’s second location, she said the decision was easy and based on need. Poladko noted that while cities, such as Philadelphia, have many organizations that are focused on helping students transition onto college, there are very few organizations like that in Wilmington.
“The need is great and the solutions are few. In Delaware, particularly Wilmington, as much as we try to attract talented individuals to the business community, we are not focused on cultivating the talent that is already here early. Especially at the high school level,” she said. “We want them go to college and to come back and build the state together.”
TeenSHARP Delaware accepts students in grades nine through eleven. According to Poladko, the ideal TeenSHARP student is “in the academic middle and up.”
— Ken Grant (@kengrantde) April 2, 2017
Potential students are put through a vigorous application process, which is modeled very closely after the college admissions process. They must fill out an online application, submit a writing sample and participate in a group interview, during which their problem-solving and leadership skills are evaluated.
“We give brutally honest feedback,” Poladko said. “We are looking for kids who won’t get defensive and will take the feedback as an opportunity to grow.”
Once accepted, students focus on strengthening the habits of academic success. They also attend full-day classes on philosophy and social entrepreneurship taught by professors at the University of Delaware. Further into the program, students will learn the ins and outs of the college admissions process, as well as what to expect once they hit campus.
The second half of the program is all about leadership. Students must choose a leadership project, based on the needs of their high school. They end the program by starting their own advocacy work and becoming active in the decision-making process at their schools.
“We want them to make sure they are respected and have a voice,” Poladko said.
With nine Delaware students moving on to four-year colleges this upcoming school year, TeenSHARP is growing and accepting more students.
The first class, which started in the beginning of 2016, was made up of 30 students from mainly New Castle and Kent Counties. As of now, students are nominated for the program by school officials.
TeenSHARP is currently partnering with three high schools in the Brandywine School District, as well as William Penn High School in the Colonial School District. Poladko hopes to expand the organization’s reach across the entire state.
“The goal is to get in front of every kid that this program would be a match for and let them know about the resources available,” she said.