Keenya Davis and Joanna Nar, Cooke Young Scholars of 2019

Two Chicago Charter School Students Named Cooke Young Scholars

With help from an outstanding resource for bright Chicago kids of modest means, two young women from Chicago’s charter schools have been selected as students of exceptional promise and will receive support to guide them through high school and into excellent colleges.

At age 3, Joanna Nar arrived in Chicago from a refugee camp in Thailand. Her parents discovered Passages Charter School in Edgewater and enrolled her there for kindergarten.

“I didn’t know the language or the culture,” of school in the United States, Nar recalled. “They taught me English, all the cultural knowledge my peers had. That took 18 months, before I could come in on their level.”

Since then, she’s been on a skyrocketing academic trajectory. Nar loves math and has excelled in it from an early age. In sixth grade, when she found out she could dissect a frog through the High Jump enrichment program for academically capable, low-income students, she was all in.

Since joining High Jump, Nar’s academic horizons—and her willingness to speak her mind—have broadened even further. “Before High Jump, I was very quiet, reserved and shy. I didn’t like social interactions. Since coming here, I’ve learned to be more outgoing and outspoken.  I’ve learned to embrace what make me special and unique.”

High Jump has also introduced her to new friends, including Keenya Davis, who attends KIPP One Academy in West Humboldt Park.  Davis’s school trajectory was different—she spent her first few years of elementary at a neighborhood school in Humboldt Park, then shifted to KIPP One for middle school when her family moved. 

Moving to KIPP Took Her Thinking Outside the Box

Davis appreciates the change. “At my old school we just looked at text books, and whoever memorized it got a good score. At KIPP, we think outside of the box. We engage in conversation, we have Socratic seminars. We had a big discussion about the Great Depression. The teacher just sits back and lets us talk and connect ideas.”

Now Davis and Yar have a new commonality—both were recently named Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars

Through its Young Scholars program, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation seeks out exceptionally talented low-income middle-schoolers and supports them through high school and the college admissions process. This year, the foundation named 60 Young Scholars from a national pool of more than 2,000 applicants. Each Cooke Young Scholar receives a substantial, personalized scholarship that supports academic and personal enrichment activities throughout the high school years. The scholarship can support boarding school, summer enrichment programs, study abroad, tools like computers or musical instruments and other resources.

“We’re giving them those opportunities that a high- or middle-income student would have,” said June Folliard, manager of scholarship programs. “If you go to Andover and everyone else is taking music lessons or going on the study abroad trip, we want to make sure you are able to do that.”

In addition to scholarship support, each Cooke Young Scholar receives personalized guidance from an educational adviser and attends summer enrichment experiences throughout their high school careers, including an introductory weekend and First Summer experience with their Cooke Young Scholar cohort as entering ninth-graders.

For now, Cooke Young Scholars Davis and Yar are getting to know their educational adviser, Gina Osorio-Wallace, who is helping them alongside High Jump as they navigate their high school admissions journeys. “They’re both go-getters,” Osorio-Wallace said. 

While Davis has plans to sit on the Supreme Court someday and is eager to attend Phillips Academy Andover or another boarding school of equal reputation, Nar is thinking independent high school closer to home, either at Latin School of Chicago or Evanston’s Beacon Academy.

While Nar is all about math, her buddy Davis is all about reading, especially in philosophy. “If you read Plato’s Republic, it’s the best dialogue ever!” Davis enthused. Though High Jump got her into philosophy, she now reads Plato in her free time. “I’m a big debater and questioner. I like reading and philosophy because there are like 20 different ways to look at things in books. Math has only one answer.”

High Jump Helps These Talented Girls Speak Their Minds

True to her High Jump-fostered ways, Nar wasn’t afraid to challenge her friend. “I like math because reading is straight to the book. With math, you have different ways of solving a problem that get to the same answer.”

Meanwhile, Davis isn’t afraid to speak the truth to anyone about the numbers of talented young people like herself who are talented strivers. Reflecting on her admissions interview, she recalled making her interviewer cry when she noted, “At this moment I’m not only representing myself I’m representing thousands of kids from low income neighborhoods who just want to do something good for our families.”

Let’s hope schools like KIPP and Passages, and programs like High Jump and Jack Kent Cooke, can keep on reaching out to more and more kids like Davis and Nar.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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