Higher Achievement

week 28:  this week i'm gonna... help close the opportunity gap

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith

Poverty and scarcity were realities that Michelle Smith experienced while growing up in Washington, DC, in the 1980’s and '90’s. Michelle lived through days with little food and nights without electricity. She watched as her father fell victim to DC’s crack epidemic and as her parents’ marriage dissolved from one filled with love to one filled with abuse, neglect, and divorce.

Through it all, Michelle’s mother remained an unwavering force of hope, strength, and support for Michelle and her five siblings. She says, "One of my most vivid memories of that time is my mother requiring us to complete our homework by candlelight because the electricity was turned off."

Michelle never let her circumstances dictate her work ethic, but it did affect the way she viewed herself and the way she interacted with her peers and siblings. She never felt comfortable in the classroom and spent much of her time seeking solitude. Michelle was a shy and timid student, often keeping her distance and avoiding getting close to those around her. This all changed when she came to Higher Achievement in the early '90's.

Michelle recalls that one of her favorite parts of Higher Achievement “was having a place to go where I wasn’t lost in the class or the crowd. It was often so easy for me to become invisible at school; it was a practiced art. However, in Higher Achievement, I was in a small group with mentors who challenged me to answer questions and to be confident in what I had to say.”

Community became incredibly important to Michelle, and after completing college, she dedicated her life to giving back to young people. She become a Higher Achievement mentor and summer academy teacher, where she served for six years. Recently, she joined Higher Achievement as a full-time staff member as Manager of Alumni Programs.

Michelle states: "Imagine a world where every child has a chance to be part of a program like Higher Achievement. Every child would walk with their ‘chin up,’ speak with confidence and fearlessly challenge themselves and their peers."


Higher Achievement closes the opportunity gap with out-of-school programs during the pivotal middle school years. By leveraging the power of communities, Higher Achievement’s proven model provides a rigorous year-round learning environment, caring role models, and a culture of high expectations, resulting in college-bound scholars with the character, confidence, and skills to succeed.

Higher Achievement was founded in 1975 by Greg Gannon, a teacher in Washington, DC. Gannon believed the program would address a serious and underappreciated community problem: the gap in opportunity between his students and the youth in the housing project across the street from the school. He founded Higher Achievement to create learning opportunities for underserved youth so they could have equal access to success, both in school and beyond.

To date, Higher Achievement has worked with over 10,000 youth in their achievement centers based in DC, Baltimore, Richmond, and Pittsburgh. 95% of their scholars advance to top academic high schools and 93% go on to college. Scholars who complete their program, on average, improve their GPAs at least one letter, graduate with a B average, show improved attendance, and demonstrate improved attitudes and behaviors toward their peers, adults, and their own learning. The organization has received extraordinary national and local recognition for its work.  Please see the video below for more info.

Lamont Gordon

Lamont Gordon

Another Higher Achievement alum, Lamont Gordon, cannot help but wonder, “What if I had missed school that day?” By “that day,” Lamont means the day that Higher Achievement staff members came into his classroom in Washington, DC.

Lamont grew up on 14th Street NW, in a community that he describes as “a low-income neighborhood struggling with many of the issues found in high-poverty areas – high unemployment, lack of resources, ineffective schools, drugs, and crime.”

Additionally, Lamont says, “No one in my family went to college; many, including my parents, did not finish high school. For most of my childhood, I lived with my father, who worked as a cab driver to support us. Because money was always tight, we moved constantly. I went to seven different schools in eight years, all in and around DC.”

But Lamont found a home at Higher Achievement. The additional classes, homework, and tests were paired with fun activities, field trips, and community-building events that allowed Lamont to thrive.

"The most important thing I gained was intellectual development. Before Higher Achievement, I had always done well in school, but expectations were pretty low. If you paid attention in class and did the homework you earned high grades. The work, however, was not challenging. HA challenged me to think. I had never read a novel before then. Because of Higher Achievement I became a reader." 

At the end of his time in Higher Achievement, Lamont applied and was accepted to Milton Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New England. He describes this as a pivotal moment that ultimately set him on a path to college. After high school, Lamont went on to receive his Bachelors at Brown University and later earned his Doctorate in Education from Harvard University.

Today, Lamont serves as the Associate Vice President of the Posse Foundation (another givetwig organization!), supporting non-traditional high school students on their path to college with full tuition leadership scholarships.

When asked where he would be without Higher Achievement, he tells the story of his brother:

"Though he’s now deceased, I had a brother who was a year older than me. We did not live together for most of our childhood but there was a period when we did (around the time I was in Higher Achievement). At that time, we attended the same middle school and were known as the ‘smart’ ones in the family. He went on to the neighborhood high school and graduated, but never went to college. He did mostly minimum wage work for the rest of his life.

When I think about this question of where I’d be today if I hadn’t participated in Higher Achievement and gotten the opportunity to go away to school, I can’t help but think that my fate could have easily been that of my brother. We had the same potential, but not the same opportunity. This desire to provide young people with educational access and opportunity is what drives me professionally and personally."

Notes for this week:

  • 2016 Summer Academy is officially underway at Higher Achievement and over 1,200 students are enrolled!
  • For further information regarding Higher Achievement, please check out their website.

this week i'm gonna donate to Higher Achievement.

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