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Harlem Academy Gala

“Allowing Children to Choose Excellence”

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Gotham Hall
1356 Broadway at W. 36th Street, NYC

Thursday, May 1, 2014


I am delighted to be here at this celebration of ten years of Harlem Academy.

Harlem Academy does the most important work in the world, and that is offering pathways—to the highest levels of success—for gifted children from all economic backgrounds.

We know that merit should win out, that opportunities should be shared broadly, and that all children should have every hope of realizing all their dreams—and that our society is diminished when they do not.

This is crucial for so many reasons. It is crucial for our economy that talented young people—from all walks of life, and from all cultural and economic backgrounds—get to realize their full potential and contribute all they can. Suffice it to say—it is crucial for humanity at large that these bright minds help to address the great global challenges we face.

Harlem Academy clearly demonstrates the power of vision. As some of you may know, a school designed to offer a transformative education for gifted, but underserved, city children was the result of a feasibility study Head of School Vinny Dotoli undertook as a master’s degree project at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Developed in a church basement, Harlem Academy began 10 years ago with a single class of 13 first graders, growing deliberately slowly, one grade at a time—as its teachers and administrators learned how best to execute that vision.

Their success has been reaffirmed—starting in 2012—as Harlem Academy’s first graduates have gone on to distinguished high schools that include Hotchkiss, Chapin, and Spence.

Harlem Academy offers its students more than opportunities for admission to some of the finest secondary schools in the nation—it instills in them the confidence that they belong there. It does take confidence to insist that one is capable of achieving remarkable things, irrespective of one’s starting point.

This is something I know a bit about personally. When I was an undergraduate at MIT—and thinking of majoring in physics—a distinguished professor offered me some rather unexpected advice, in order to dissuade me from physics: “Colored girls,” he told me, “should learn a trade.” This was during my enrollment in his class.

Naturally, I was hurt. But after a bit of reflection, I realized that both chance and choice were shaping me. Chance had made me colored and female, and I accepted and enjoyed that fact. But it was choice that had gotten me to MIT—choice to study as much science and math as I could, choice to excel. I already had made many decisions that would shape my fate. I decided that I would go on making them, and not be dissuaded from using my talents in the ways that suited me best, and in ways to make a difference in others’ lives.

I did very well in this professor’s class, by the way—so well that, eventually, he offered me a job in his laboratory. So I like to think that he learned something from me and about me —that physics was a perfectly appropriate trade for a young black woman.

I realize that not every person has, or will have, the opportunities I had, or the early confidence I developed. My life changed because of the confluence in time of two seminal events in our nation’s history—first, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated the public schools across the nation, and in Washington, DC, where I grew up, and, second, the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite, which riveted the nation’s attention on a Space Race with the Soviet Union, and on the concomitant ramping up and strengthening of math and science curricula in America’s public schools.

So, a window in time opened for me, and I stepped through it to obtain a very rigorous public school education, and I ended up at MIT. The rest is history, as they say. Not quite, but by the time I arrived at MIT, I was on the path that has led me to where I am today. I could not have done it without my parents, who believed in family, hard work, and the pursuit of excellence, or without world class teachers.

Harlem Academy allows young people to embrace the opportunities and obstacles chance has set before them—and, stubbornly, to choose excellence at every turn. It also is predicated on quality teaching, and partnership with parents.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we see the value of this education firsthand, when we host Harlem Academy middle school students at our Troy campus every year for a three-day experience at a technological research university—to learn what scientists and engineers, architects, humanists, artists and business people really do. Harlem Academy students are critical thinkers. They come with formidable math skills, and a remarkable understanding of the scientific method. They are active participants in their own learning.

This coincides with the Rensselaer pedagogical philosophy, which, from the moment of our founding in 1824, has been about active learning. Rensselaer always has emphasized getting students out in the field to gather data, into the laboratory to perform experiments, and sending them to the front of the classroom to present their results to their professors and fellow students.

At Rensselaer, we attribute much of our own success to putting into place the right people, programs, platforms, and partnerships. Harlem Academy clearly has the right people: creative and dedicated teachers, administrators, and staff, and committed families. It has an academic program designed not merely to convey a body of knowledge, but, also, to build analytical skills and imagination. It is planning a wonderful platform in a new campus on St. Nicholas Avenue, that is designed to serve 360 students—three times as many as today. It also has an extraordinary platform in the City of New York, and makes ample use of resources such as the American Museum of Natural History. And because Harlem Academy does everything else so well, it attracts devoted partners that include my family, and, I am proud to say, the university that I lead. Devoted partners like so many of you.

At Rensselaer, our motto is, “Why not change the world?” Well, Harlem Academy is changing the world, one curious and energetic child at a time.

Just a decade ago, Harlem Academy started with a single room of first-graders. I very much look forward to the day that I shake the hands of the first Harlem Academy alumni and alumnae to enroll in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—and we have the privilege of further preparing them to change the world. I feel certain it will not be long!

I thank Harlem Academy for having me as a special guest this evening, and friends, I thank all of you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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