This article originally appeared in the Rochester Business Journal, November 17, 2021.
First Line Initiative to address education accessibility at Harley School
The first line of the Harley School’s mission statement reads “We are a diverse, inclusive school.” So it is only fitting that a new program that directly addresses financial equity among the independent school’s student body would be called First Line Initiative.
“The First Line Initiative is an effort to help us live up to our own lofty aspirations to live as a diverse and inclusive school,” said Harley Head of School Larry Frye. “Harley is, by normal independent school standards, pretty diverse already. We’ve been around 31 – 35 percent self-identified students of color; we’ve had around 60 percent of our students on financial aid. By independent school measures those are high figures, but we felt that there was one population that we weren’t reaching or serving fully and that was impoverished kids. So we wanted to find a way to make a Harley education accessible for every point on the socioeconomic spectrum.”
Generally speaking, every family whose children attend Harley has to pay at least some percentage of the tuition. And while that helps a great deal of families, there remain others whose children would be accepted into Harley but who are unable to pay even the smallest amount. The First Line Initiative addresses that inequity.
“The strategy of the First Line Initiative has been twofold. First is the philanthropic program and second is an admissions program,” Frye explained. “On the philanthropic side, we have reached out to donors to see if they would like to help support students in attending Harley and within that effort there have been both endowment gifts and sustaining annual gifts.”
The school began working on endowment gifts for the program last year and has raised $1.3 million, which includes a $1 million anonymous gift that set the school on its way. In addition, a number of people have pledged to support a student or students annually for several years. It may not amount to the entire tuition, but it helps a family reach a tuition goal, Frye said.
The Harley School ran a pilot program of sorts last year with two high school students. This year the program began in earnest with eight students in the First Line Initiative. The program will be annual and Frye said he hopes to one day soon get to 15 to 20 children participating in the initiative.
“You don’t want to admit a kid and two years later say we ran out of money. We’re taking it kind of conservatively and one step at a time,” Frye said. “We definitely can afford the eight students we have. We hope to keep reaching out to people and earning their support so that we can expand that number by a couple each year.”
A crucial element of the program is making kids feel comfortable and enabling them to participate in extracurricular activities that they might not otherwise be able to afford.
“When you think about a kid who is coming to the school from an impoverished background, which is the subset of people the First Line Initiative is supporting, you can imagine them begging off of a social thing, asking if this field trip is mandatory because they don’t know if they can afford it,” Frye explained. “What we’ve done is create a fund that allows us to support kids with needs that other families might take for granted — being able to buy cleats, making sure a kid can go on a field trip, if a student needed tutoring or counseling support, any of those things that are part of what help you succeed in school and feel like you’re part of a community. We are trying to stay ahead of what those things might be.”
As part of Harley’s fundraising, the school has put aside a substantial budget so that when things come up, such as a student who wants to play soccer but doesn’t have the right gear, the school can anticipate that and ensure that none of those things are impediments to them feeling like they are fully part of the community and can access every element of it, Frye said.
The First Line Initiative is one of several initiatives Harley is undertaking to ensure that the school is living up to its diversity and belonging mission.
“In the last couple of years the school has really worked hard and accelerated our work around diversity. One aspect of that is the First Line Initiative, but there are also curricular aspects to that. We’ve really developed a whole curriculum around this work. And there are cultural elements to it as well,” Frye explained. “Harley welcomed our first ever DEI educator, Jonathan Ntheketha. He comes to us after 15 years working in DEI related fields at RIT.”
Ntheketha was known for supporting and championing underrepresented students in college through his work in the Multicultural Center for Academic Success at Rochester Institute of Technology. A native Rochesterian, Ntheketha earned his B.A. in speech and theatre from St. Lawrence University, with minors in biology and education.
“To me, Harley is a place where we care a lot about the core mission of this school and we really try to live up to it. We try to do what we say we’re going to do. And we are self-critical,” Frye said of Harley’s DEI initiatives. “So when we feel like we’re not fully delivering on any element of our commitment as a school, then we want to take it on. The First Line Initiative is an effort to do that.
“We want to make what we think is a truly exceptional education available to kids anywhere on the socioeconomic spectrum, and we hope that is something we can do to help our kids and our city and make for a better, more equitable world.”
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