September 21, 2014

Cornell Alumnus Works to Reduce Education Gap

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Karim Abouelnaga ’13, a student who attended a Long Island high school with a 55 percent graduation rate, says being mentored was how he reached success in school.

Years later, he hopes to pay it forward with a non-profit startup.

As a sophomore at Cornell, Abouelnaga thought he could try to reduce the achievement gap in New York City by offering summer mentorship programs in low-income areas. Since then, his organization — Practice Makes Perfect — has assisted nearly 600 inner-city students.

The program’s approach, according to Abouelnaga, is based off recent studies about the education gap — one study found in 2007 that “more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.”

Besides negatively affecting children’s chances for the future, the gap causes huge setbacks for school systems, according to Abouelnaga. As a result of these setbacks, the United States’ gross domestic product is affected by $300 billion to $500 billion each year, Abouelnaga said.

Abouelnaga said he hopes Practice Makes Perfect, which is entering its fifth year, will be one of many solutions to this problem.

According to Abouelnaga, the program is unique due to its mentorship approach. Younger students identified by their schools as “at-risk” receive help from older students who have been through similar experiences.

At the beginning of his research, Abouelnaga said he realized that most top education reformers — including Wendy Kopp from Teach for America, Diane Ravitch from To Save Our Children, Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst and President Barack Obama — have an outsider’s perspective on the issue.

“I thought these people are all incredibly admirable, and none of them had ever attended an inner-city public school,” he said. “I realized that so much of the education reform is done from a very sympathetic perspective. Not that there’s anything wrong with sympathy, but who better than an older brother or older sister that’s high-achieving to say ‘you can do this’?”

Irving Torres ’18 served as one of the first Practice Makes Perfect mentors the summer before his senior year of high school. While his original motivation was the $150 stipend for six weeks of tutoring, Torres said his sentiments quickly changed as he became closer with his mentees, with whom he still interacts today.

“[When I became a mentor], I already knew I wanted to get out of my education as much as possible,” he added. “So to be put in a position where I could shape a kid and help them form that mentality coming into high school — because I was mentoring these kids I was able to go through that with them.”

When Abouelnaga founded Practice Makes Perfect with five of his Cornell friends, he said he was okay with the idea of failure.

“So many people had told me before I got to Cornell that your experience isn’t going to be defined by what you learn in a classroom, it’s going to be about the relationships you build,” he said. “So when I brought everyone together I was like we’ll see, even if by the end of the day this doesn’t take off, we’re gonna build friendships that transcend our time here at Cornell — and it did just that for us. Those are some of my closest friends today.”