On a muggy July afternoon, Sheena Harris is teaching about the creolization of African people during the years of slavery.
"Many people said that most of the heritage and most of who the Africans were completely was erased -- right? -- because of the Atlantic slave trade," she told her students. "Scholars are now going back and saying it was not erased, but changed."
Her students sat, eyes fixed on Harris as she paced back and forth. It was more like a college lecture than a sixth grade lesson. Which makes sense, because during the school year, Harris is a professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
For the last two years, Harris has made the 20-plus hour drive from the deep South up to Connecticut, where she teaches history to a select group of Hartford middle schoolers.
"Sometimes you forget that they're 9, 10, 11, and 12," she said, "because they're so mature and advanced intellectually, also in their ability to process things."
She spends six weeks each summer teaching for the Hartford Youth Scholars program. It's an intensive teaching and counseling system that chooses 30 sixth graders from around the city each year, and works with them for at least 10 years, guiding them through high school, and for most of them, through college graduation.
They get about 100 applications per year, and they interview about 75 students, accepting the best 30 candidates.
Anthony Byers, co-executive director of the program, said many things are taken into consideration when figuring out who to accept.
"We're considering: first generation [to go to college], income, we're looking at recommendations, we're looking at test scores, we're looking at the schools that they're in, we're looking at the neighborhoods that they come from," Byers said. "All of those things factor into us trying to round out a class of students that we feel really strongly that need us."
The expectation from the beginning is that these students want to go to college. If they end up doing something else, that's OK, Byers said, as long as they're taking away other important skills, like critical thinking, and a strong work ethic.
The first thing the students have to do is give up half their summer, going into seventh grade. For three years, they'll take part in what's called the Steppingstone Academy -- this is the summer program that also has an after-school component during the regular school year.
Rising eighth-grader Daizhon Robinson said he wasn't into the program at first.
"I got recommended for this kind of program, so then I was like, 'Oh, homework during the summer, oh my God'," Daizhon said. "Then, after that, I was like, 'Wait a second, this is actually cool.' Because like, after the whole six weeks I've been here, it was like one of the funnest things I've probably ever done during the summer."
It also makes his family happy, he said, especially his little brother.
"Especially during the year, that he don't have to see me for two hours after school's done,” he said, adding that “it fits for the whole family."
He said most of his friends don't understand it. Why would he want to give up his summers and his time after school? For Daizhon, the answer is simple.
"The whole point of this program is to see kids go to that college level," he said.
Most of the students would be the first in their family to go to college. But the program is intensive. When it first started about 10 years ago, about a third of students stopped participating for various reasons, according to Valerie Klokow, director of grants and communications. These days, she said they have better strategies in place to support students who are considering dropping out.
But for those who have stuck it out, 91 percent are on track to graduate college within six years, according to internal data. This is almost double the state average of 46 percent, and over three times the rate for Hartford Public Schools, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The program is also about providing social and emotional support, which can come from something as simple as having a teacher who looks like the students. Most Hartford kids are African American, West Indian, or Latino, but many have never had a teacher of color. As a black woman with a PhD, Harris, the professor from Tuskegee, said that alone can be a powerful influence on young students.
"They're going to go into settings where most people, or some of the people in those settings, may have never been in a class with someone who doesn't look like them," Harris said. "And so, for them to be able to navigate those spaces, and feel confident in themselves to be able to navigate those spaces, I think has been a really important component of working with the program as well."
Hartford Youth Scholars is funded by a variety of donors throughout the area. Klokow said it costs approximately $3,460 per student to make it through the 10-year program.
Co-executive director Byers often gets questions about expanding the program to help more kids, but he said keeping it small is important. That way, they can develop lasting, and meaningful, relationships with each kid.