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July 30, 2010 Published in Non-Profits, Schools

Higher Achievement Holds Annual Olympics Of The Mind

500 Higher Achievement Program scholars pack into the Francis Hammond gym for the Olympics of the Mind. (Photo: Alex Hampl)

By Alex Hampl

The atmosphere in the gym at Francis Hammond Middle School on Friday morning was more like that of a big basketball game than something called the Olympics of the Mind. Five hundred kids from the D.C. Metro area were standing and cheering – for themselves and for their peers – in the Olympics of the Mind, the grand finale for the Higher Achievement Program’s Summer Academy.

The Higher Achievement Program was founded in 1975 by Gonzaga College High School math teacher Greg Gannon. Since then, the middle school tutoring and mentoring program has evolved and now boasts six achievement centers, one in Alexandria. HAP has also expanded beyond the D.C. region; there are new centers in Baltimore.

Lynsey Wood Jeffries, the executive director for Higher Achievement D.C., described the program as a “Year-round academic enrichment program with accelerated learning… The goal is to get placement in the best high school programs, AP and Honors classes.”

Students from competing achievement centers race to finish a multiplication problem. (Photo: Alex Hampl)

The rigorous program involves scholars studying math, science, literature and social studies at achievement centers from 8:00 to 4:00 five days a week during the summer and from 3:30 to 8:00 three days a week during the school year.

“We provide them with 650 hours of instruction throughout the year,” said Jeffries. “Compare that with about 900 hours of regular school time and you can see that our scholars are really getting a head start.”

Jeffries also said that when students sign up for the program, they make a four-year commitment. In addition to study time, students are fed dinner and receive extensive attention from individual mentors.

“That’s our biggest problem right now,” Jeffries said. “We need more mentors. By September we need to get at least 40 more mentors involved.”

The significant time commitment and exacting curriculum have produced results. “Usually students come into our program with GPAs around 2.5 and they will head into high school with 3.5s,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries also said that of the alumni HAP has been able to keep in touch with, 93% have graduated from college. That outstanding college graduation rate may be due to the fact that HAP gives its scholars exposure to higher education even as they are still in middle school. Next week the program is taking the students on college visits to the University of Maryland and Penn State. The kids will sleep in dorms and eat at the school cafeterias.

A student puzzles over a word problem. (Photo: Alex Hampl)

“By high school, they will have stayed overnight at three or four different colleges,” Jeffries said.

On Friday, no one was thinking about the future. The festive Olympics featured opening ceremonies that involved chants or skits from each of the six achievement centers. The groups blended singing, dancing and popular hip-hop songs with lyrics about staying in school and working hard. After counselors explained the rules of the Olympics, a representative from defending champions Alexandria ran the paper torch into the gymnasium. A loud cheer erupted and all of the campers starting stomping their feet in anticipation of the day’s events. The campers had just sung about their academic dedication and skills – now they were ready to prove it and bring home the trophy awarded to the winning center.

A student works on a math problem during the Olympics of the Mind. (Photo: Alex Hampl)

The Olympics of the Mind is supported by ACT for Alexandria, a community foundation that gave HAP a $5,000 grant for marketing and outreach. ACT for Alexandria also helped to provide volunteers from several local businesses including Nobliss, Mayer Brown, and Keller Williams.