MAXIMUM EXPOSURE: Yvette Long's program helps whet the students' intellectual appetites with trips to places like the Liberty Science Center. From left are Clay Austin, Bentley Awobue, Qamar Simons, Long, and Quashe Hendryx.
Yvette Long was a stay-at-home mom in Chester when she read something that changed her life. A young boy had been shot and killed on the streets of Newark. “It propelled me to take action.”
Long created Platinum Minds, a program that seeks out gifted boys from troubled neighborhoods and helps put them in more stable educational surroundings. The program chooses boys—because boys are most at-risk, says Long—and removes them from the chaos, volatility, and dangers of their everyday lives and provides guidance, financial aid, and even housing to enable them to attend better schools, where they can learn and thrive.
”The chance to succeed in life starts with a great education and an environment that encourages ambition and achievement. A lot of times that’s not possible to do where these kids come from,” says Long.
The program also assists the boys with additional resources such as SAT prep courses, life skills, and tutoring that will open educational doors for them. Which means, thanks to Platinum Minds, boys from the dangerous streets of places like Trenton and Camden are attending Solebury Boarding School in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Delbarton School in Morristown.
Long lives a comfortable upper-middle-class life, and discussions about education for her own children—daughters Nicolette and Danielle—revolved around choices. Where would her girls thrive? What educational environment would be right for them? Education is so fundamental, so important. The right choices are critical, says Long, who has a masters in student personnel services from Montclair State University. But many parents don’t have the luxury of those kinds of conversations, and the concern for so many talented students is not about thriving but surviving.
Platinum Minds seeks bright kids who live in troubled neighborhoods or troubled homes. The kids often are surrounded—and tempted—by gangs, alcohol, and drugs. “Seeking an education can be a life-threatening experience,” says Long. For these kids, just getting to school can be a challenge. They sometimes are harassed because they are smart or care about books. “There is no joy for them,” says Long. ”There is no joy in their learning. There is no joy in their life.”
On the street, education is not readily recognized as a way up, and kids who care about school are often ridiculed. Plus gangs are always looking for new prospects.
“Students who are smart, who are on the right path, are targets,” says Long. “It’s unfortunate that we have some very bright kids who are in prison.”
Long tells a story she heard while sitting in a principal’s office in Newark. A boy was explaining his decision to quit school. He said: “Yesterday a kid came up to me and put a gun to my face. And I knew the kid. I was scared to death but I didn’t want the kid to know that.“
The boy, says Long, was with his younger brother, and the incident happened right outside school gates. “Obviously this is a nice kid who didn’t want to join a gang. Instead he’s going to drop out of school.” These are the boys that Platinum Minds is trying to help.
The organization is in its second year. It placed nine students last year, and eighteen have been chosen for fall 2009. Students go through an extensive interview process. To be considered, they must meet many requirements: a grade average of B or higher, no problems with drugs, alcohol, or gangs, and no disciplinary issues.
Platinum Minds does not pay private school tuition—but it does help students apply for scholarships and procure loans, which they may not know are available. The idea is to provide students with the tools to succeed. Some students need transportation; others need host families who can provide a stable learning environment. Of the eighteen students in the program this year, eleven received full scholarships; Platinum Minds is fundraising to secure tuition for the others.
One important caveat in the selection process: each student must agree to be an ambassador in his community. It’s one thing to help a student get out of a rough environment; it’s quite another for that student to show others the way.
“We want our students to know they have a role in inspiring others,” says Long. “We can’t touch as many students as our students can touch.”
The ambassador role works both ways. Last year, Platinum Minds students participated in global problem-solving workshops at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills. The topic was global education and it was part of the school’s series of workshops on world problem-solving.
”The Platinum Mind students offered a wonderful perspective on education,” says Elizabeth O’Mara, director of strategic marketing and communication at Far Hills. ”These are students who are very invested in their own education, and thus, are very enthusiastic about it. The experience was a community-builder, another way for Far Hills students to extend the classroom, plus the ensuing brainstorming session was thought-provoking.”
Parents of Platinum Mind students are also impressed. ”It’s important for Alex to get out of the inner city environment if he is going to succeed. The kind of highly competitive curriculum offered by these schools will push my son more and other kids won’t pull him back,” says Alexander Bethea, whose son Alex participated in the program last year.
Long wishes she could do more. “These students need help now. We can act quickly. We’re changing students’ lives on a daily basis.”
As a nonprofit, Platinum Minds is dependent on charitable gifts. During the current tough economic climate, with many people cutting back on donations, Long suggests a big-picture view: If society focused more effort on excellent education for all, many of the diseases that depend on charitable donations might not be as prevalent.
”Our society is falling further and further behind in the industrialized world because we are not properly educating our young,” says Long. ”We are instead becoming known for housing and supporting the largest prison population in the world. Our focus as a nation has to return to building better minds.”
Long is working to raise money so more students can benefit from her program. But she also knows that even helping a few can make a big difference.
“Hope is a lot in itself,” she says. “Most young children have a dream of becoming someone important and useful when they grow up, but somewhere along their journey their dream becomes unfeasible. They lose hope. Education is a gateway to a better life. What little bit you can do is a lot.”