Andrew Jackson High School in Queens’ Cambria Heights neighborhood was a dangerous place. In 1970, police broke up a heroin-processing facility in the basement. In the ’80s, kids referred to the building’s lawless third floor, where a student was shot and killed at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, as “Death Valley.”
While 30 percent of students earned diplomas, most dropped out — including rappers LL Cool J and 50 Cent, the school’s most famous alumni. “It was an extremely tough, challenging, dangerous, poor neighborhood,” says Randall Edouard, who graduated five years before city administrators shuttered AJHS in 1994. “Just to enter the school took at least 30 minutes because we had to walk through metal detectors, remove articles of clothing. It was like living in a war zone. You did whatever you had to do to survive.”
For Edouard, that meant cutting class to hang with the people whose reputations afforded protection. They typically made their way to the gymnasium, where as long as they weren’t causing trouble, teachers allowed them to linger. Thus one spring day in 1988, Edouard and his friends found themselves in the midst of a college recruiting program organized by representatives of New York state’s Educational Opportunity Program. Edouard’s school guidance counselor had said the youngster wasn’t college material. Yet Edouard heard something different from those EOP representatives. “That forum was the first time someone in a suit said I could go to college,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t care that you don’t have any money and you don’t have the grades.’”
Edouard took the message to heart, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s from Long Island’s Hofstra University. Today, Edouard is director of Binghamton’s Educational Opportunity Program, a statewide program that provides academic and financial support to underprepared, very low-income students who have the potential to achieve. “EOP saved my life,” says the 40-year-old husband and father of two, who also is a doctoral student in Binghamton’s Graduate School of Education. “Probably nine of 10 friends I had in high school are either incarcerated now or dead.”
Established in 1967, EOP operates at 41 SUNY campuses (private colleges in New York, including Hofstra, host a parallel effort known as HEOP — Higher Education Opportunity Programs). At Binghamton, 502 students are currently enrolled in the program. Each was inadmissible through the standard process because of a weak high school transcript, but each had a spark suggesting that, with comprehensive academic support and financial aid, they could shine as brightly as their more privileged peers.
Frank Smith, a retired senior assistant provost at Hofstra and longtime HEOP director, was the suited man who urged Edouard to attend college. “I saw he was a very bright, articulate young man, a young man who had all of the makings for greatness in his soul and spirit — he just had to be nourished,” says Smith, who notes that Edouard was also “very ill-prepared, very frustrated and uncertain whether to stay and continue with his studies.”
To make up for participants’ uneven preparation for college, each campus hosts a required, four-week, pre-freshman summer program that equips students to tackle college assignments. Smith credits Hofstra’s version for bolstering his protégé’s confidence. Since Edouard signed on as director of Binghamton’s EOP in 2009, he has made the Binghamton Enrichment Program (BEP) — he refers to it as “academic boot camp” — his primary focus.
“People say, ‘These are poor, at-risk students; let’s walk them through, kumbaya,’” he says. “My approach is, ‘We understand, we sympathize, we empathize, and here’s what you have to do from here on out because your potential is way up there.’ [We maintain] an extremely demanding atmosphere and we will level the playing field. We will hit the ground running when the fall bell rings.” Already, graduation rates for Binghamton EOP students exceed those of the other SUNY programs, as well as the regularly admitted students at Albany, Buffalo and Stony Brook. Edouard now tells his students he expects them to graduate at rates even higher than those of their regularly admitted peers at Binghamton.
In line with the “boot camp” approach, Edouard imposes strict rules for the summer program: no cell phones, no cars and a midnight curfew. Enforcement is rigorous. Last July, a student caught with a contraband phone halfway through the program was expelled and, simultaneously, lost his offer of admission to the University. “Often our students haven’t been pushed to work hard,” Edouard says, “but that’s something that should be normal in their academic life. It’s a little bit of a culture shock.” Learning to limit distractions until after assignments are finished, he says, is just part of the process. “We want to engulf our students in a new environment with new challenges, new thoughts, new energies and synergies,” he says, “so they can completely embrace a new challenge.”
To ease the transition, BEP incorporates staff counselors as well as peer counseling from upperclass students in EOP. “In the beginning, we say, ‘Yes, it’s tough, but anything that’s worth anything in life is tough. Anything you get easily, you better question it,’” Edouard says. “We coach students through those phases, and we’ve found that students are so much stronger. It helps them prepare for what they’ll encounter at Binghamton and in life in general.”
Tanairy Carbo, 19, is the youngest of eight siblings and the first in her family to graduate from high school. Now a sophomore majoring in sociology and women’s studies, she lived in a Bronx housing project during high school. When she was in middle school, the family briefly called a shelter home. Carbo set her sights on enrolling at Binghamton in ninth grade, after a visit to campus. Despite her longstanding dedication, she says, the BEP was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I cried every day.” But she stuck it out, proving to herself that she has the mettle Edouard sees in each of the students he mentors. “BEP gave me confidence that if I could do that,” she says, “I could do anything.”
Beyond the academic benefits of developing college-level study skills and honing her comprehension and composition skills during BEP, Carbo got a head start making friends and learning her way around campus, reducing the stress that accompanies the first weeks of college for most freshmen. “I’ve never felt like my back is against the wall,” she says. “If I need something, I go to EOP. Randall is an extremely intelligent man, always wearing a suit and a nice tie, even though we make fun of him — but that’s what we appreciate about him: He takes this so seriously and cares so much.”
When Edouard came to campus, one of his top priorities was garnering SUNY credit toward graduation for the courses BEP students take during the summer. “He brought the idea to me, and I said I’d love to get there,” says Brian Rose, vice president for Student Affairs and Edouard’s supervisor. He gave Edouard carte blanche to pursue the idea, despite the bureaucratic challenges associated with awarding credit to students who haven’t paid tuition. The 2011 BEP students were the first cohort to earn the credit Edouard had worked so hard to arrange. “Through his enthusiasm and persistence and positive attitude, he becomes that guy you can’t say no to,” Rose says. “I don’t think anyone else could have gotten that done. He’s extremely positive, persistent, dedicated. When he says, ‘Here’s what I need from you to make this happen,’ how do you say no?”