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9 Scholars and Counting: My Family’s Journey to Success Academy

This time of year, my family has an important tradition. Thousands of Success Academy children across the city don their blue backpacks and make their way to the first day of school, and my son, daughters, nieces, and nephews join them. I couldn’t be prouder, but before the new year can start — before the hugs and the handshakes with the principal — my entire extended family gathers together to take our annual back-to-school picture. In total, there are nine children in my family attending Success Academy this year. Eight of them are at SA Harlem 5, and my eldest just started sixth grade at SA Harlem West. We almost “bleed” blue and orange, and love celebrating together with the group picture at both the start and the end of the year!

My family’s journey to Success started several years ago — and many thousands of miles away. I’m from Ghana, and I decided to try to leave my country specifically because I hoped to find better educational options for my kids. I felt that they weren’t getting the rich educational experience that I dreamed for them, because education in Ghana is traditionally much more about memorizing facts. I had a vision of New York City as the center of big ideas, with opportunities available at every turn and the world’s best schools on every corner. When we arrived and I enrolled my son in a school, I was shocked to discover that this was not the case. He was not doing as well as I hoped. In fact, I could see him forgetting what he had learned. I started to have serious concerns about my decision to move my family.

It was the blue backpacks and the attentiveness of the children wearing them that first caught my eye. I saw a line of students entering a school, and they seemed so eager. I asked around and discovered that this was part of the Success Academy schools. One of the parents was so excited about my interest that she offered to take me inside the school so that I could see for myself — and I fell in love with what I found. There was evidence of learning even in the hallways, which were filled to the brim with student work. I just had a feeling that we belonged here, and I always follow my instincts! I applied immediately for a spot for my son, but was heartbroken when the letter came saying we hadn’t been selected in the lottery. A week before school started that year, I received a phone call that changed our lives: A place had opened at SA Harlem 5, and would I want to consider sending my son there? I told them immediately that there was nothing to consider. We were not going to miss our chance!

I just had a feeling that we belonged here, and I always follow my instincts!

My family has never looked back. We watched the dramatic changes that unfolded in my son Fareed, even though the school needed to hold him back a year because he had fallen behind. I became heavily involved with the SA community, because now that I’ve seen what a love of learning does for my own children, I want to pay it forward. I’ve served as parent council president and vice president and also served on the education reform committee. Last year, I volunteered for more than 14 field trips. In fact, I dubbed myself an honorary staff member and even have my own H5 cap to prove it!

Fareed and I led the way for the rest of my family to discover Success. My nieces moved here from Ghana and came to live with me, so of course I applied for their places. My daughter Yasmine was lucky to start at the same time as her cousins, Nishat and Naeema. My nephew Hamza is so good with numbers that at Success he was able to jump forward a year, so now he’s incredibly confident in math.

Each first day of school has been more exciting than the last, as yet another one of our children joins. We all encourage each other — when I found out my nieces Atiyyah, Samiyah, and Halimah won places at SA Harlem 5, I gave them all our old SA Harlem 5 books and resources so the family could be introduced to the SA way of learning and reading over the summer. My own children are looking forward to the start of the year as well, because they are Success students through and through. They just love to learn. My daughter completed the homework packet for her own grade and the grade above because she likes to be challenged with new ideas. Her cousin Nishat is incredibly creative and wants to join the art club. My own Hassana loves science and is eager for fourth grade experiments.

As we prepare for another year, I simply cannot wait to see their growth. I always remind my cousins and siblings to take pictures of everything their children do at the beginning of the school year, even the little things like handwriting, because in the blink of an eye their kids will change so much.

We’re making this journey together. I’m not sure exactly where it will take us, but I do know that the first day of school is truly just the beginning.

Written by Nana Hawawu Alawiye August 27, 2018

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