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Harvard Law grad helps low-income kids aim high

While many high schools push poor students toward less competitive college, this New York nonprofit helps to graduate kids from top-tier schools at remarkable rates

Legal Outreach Staff member Tamika Edwards leads a class discussion.

QUEENS, N.Y.  When Ismelda Mejia, 16, a junior at a large public high school in the Bronx, was invited to the principal’s office earlier this fall along with nine of her classmates, she was thrilled to discover the reason why. Her GPA placed her among the top 10 students in her class. In fact, Mejia was number three. 

But after the principal and college counselor praised the students for their academic achievements, the rest of the message fell flat.

The administrators presented the students with what Mejia considered a surprisingly narrow set of options: They could attend one of the city or state’s public colleges, known as the CUNYs (City University of New York) and SUNYs (State University of New York), or they could find a job. 

“‘You guys have really high grades, so we expect you to be able to at least go to a SUNY,’” Mejia recalls staff telling the group. ‘“But if not, here’s a list of things you can do without having to go to college.’”  

Mejia, a student with Ivy League aspirations — she has her sights focused on Brown — was appalled. Although her Dominican-born mother did not attend college, Mejia plans to become a lawyer and specialize in representing children who’ve been abused. Three years ago, at the start of high school, she took a big step toward realizing that ambition by enrolling in a Queens-based afterschool program, Legal Outreach, that encourages low-income students to attend the nation’s top schools — and prepares them to thrive once they get there. 

Conventional wisdom among guidance counselors holds that students from high-poverty high schools may struggle at the nation’s elite colleges, so placing them in less competitive environments will give them a chance. A 2012 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that most high-achieving low-income students don’t apply to any competitive colleges. A separate study of 30 million college students from 1999 to 2013 revealed that while the number of children from low-income families attending four-year institutions rose rapidly during the 2000s, the share of low-income students at selective colleges barely budged. This was despite efforts by schools such as those in the Ivy League to modify their tuition policies specifically to draw more low-income students to their campuses.   

James O’Neal, founder of Legal Outreach, has dedicated the last 35 years of his career to challenging the kind of thinking that he believes holds low-income students back.  

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Started with the goal of getting students motivated to perform in school by sparking an interest in a legal career, the organization has evolved into a broader college prep program that offers writing courses, mentoring constitutional law debates, summer internships with blue-chip New York law firms, SAT prep, sessions to help students apply to college, a philosophy course taught by a college professor and workshops to help students and their parents prepare for college life. Students are recommended for the program by their teachers and must come from families that earn below a certain income threshold to qualify. Legal Outreach offers an opportunity to build the critical thinking skills and self-confidence its students’ wealthier peers often accrue naturally. Through its College Bound program, summer legal institute and parent workshops, the organization serves about 400 students and 70 families each year. 

Once they get to college, Legal Outreach graduates tend to do very well. Nationally, only 18 percent of high school graduates from high-poverty schools achieve a four-year college degree, compared to 52 percent of graduates from more affluent schools, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. By contrast, roughly 79 percent of recent Legal Outreach alumni graduated college within four years, and 93 percent finished in six. Approximately 78 percent of the program’s graduates last year attended colleges considered “highly” or “very” selective. Those schools included Yale, Cornell, Columbia, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Syracuse, Georgetown, Swarthmore and Morehouse. 

“The opportunities at that level are very different than what you are going to get at a local community college,” said Bethsheba Cooper, co-director of Legal Outreach, who has worked alongside O’Neal for 34 years. “You’re talking about learning from people who are the best in the game. There’s an education happening outside the classroom with people our kids otherwise wouldn’t come into contact with.” 

Just weeks after finishing Harvard Law School, in 1982, O’Neal found his way to New York. Instead of grabbing the cash that was being proffered by the nation’s top law firms, he decided his future lay in making change, not money. He had no training as a teacher, but he persuaded a high school principal to allow him to teach a law elective. O’Neal was convinced that if he could just get students excited about the law, they would find the motivation to propel themselves all the way to law school, a path he felt could transform the economic fortunes of entire families. 

Standing in front of a classroom of 11th- and 12th-graders at the high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, O’Neal had a startling revelation. Some of the students who sat before him were just as skilled as his Harvard classmates at dissecting an argument.  

Related: The community college ‘segregation machine’ 

“They came up with fascinating arguments to support whatever side they were on,” he recalled. “For a second I thought, had some of these kids gone to law school and just not told me?” 

But with his revelation in that Bed-Stuy classroom came a bracing splash of cold reality: The students might possess nimble minds, but they lacked the basic skills to surmount the educational challenges that awaited them on the way to a law degree. 

“Even though so many were good thinkers, they hadn’t acquired the ability to express themselves in standard English, orally or in writing,” he said. “The public education system had failed these kids.” 

O’Neal knew he had to find a way to reach students before it was too late. So he decided to go back to middle school. “As long as you’re able to get serious starting the ninth grade year, good things can happen for you,” he said. 

O’Neal started a program to introduce eighth graders to legal issues common in their communities — police use of force, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect. He also started a mock trial competition — and began to hire staff for the expanding program. With the mock trials, O’Neal saw students surprise even themselves when they realized they could stand in front of a room full of people and present a cogent argument.  

But he and his staff soon realized they still weren’t doing enough. He would come across students who’d impressed him as eighth graders and discover they were floundering in high school. They felt lost in schools with thousands of kids, where they received little attention and support from staff.  

Related: An urban charter school achieves a fivefold increase in the percentage of its black and Latino graduates who major in STEM 

“I was operating under the assumption that what they needed was motivation at an early enough stage to discipline themselves and apply themselves toward their dreams,” he said. “But that was naïve.” 

So with no real funding to support it, in 1989 O’Neal opened an afterschool study center for high schoolers in Harlem, starting with just eight students. These kids were taught study skills and received help with their homework.  

Each year, O’Neal — now joined by Cooper — began systematically adding new elements to the program, and bringing the program to more students. Early on, Saturday writing classes were born. (Nick Chiles, the author of this piece, served as a writing instructor in the program from 1994 to 2004.) But a year-long, once-a-week class wasn’t enough. Students needed writing instruction all four years of high school, with the first year devoted exclusively to grammar, so those elements were added, too. Next came the summer law internships at top law firms, then the mentoring program, and the constitutional law debates.  

Carol Van Atten, vice president of the Charles Hayden Foundation, which focuses on at-risk children in the Northeast, said she’s impressed by O’Neal’s willingness to experiment. “Some things have worked, some things haven’t. He doesn’t worry about what the funder thinks,” said Van Atten, whose fund has given Legal Outreach $1.7 million over the past two decades. “He’ll just say, ‘We thought it was going to work, but it didn’t.’ Then he comes to me again and again and says, ‘I want to try this over the summer.’ I’ll say, ‘Go ahead’.” 

Today, Legal Outreach operates with an annual budget of $2.3 million, about $5,764 per participant. There are 17 full-time staff members and 60 part-time. While many groups offer one or two programs similar to those on Legal Outreach’s docket — such as mentoring or SAT prep or summer internships — few take such a holistic approach. 

“They’re providing the kind of support that’s just not out there, that’s only provided by a handful of programs,” says Danielle Pulliam, a program officer with the Pinkerton Foundation, which has supported the group since 1996. “James O’Neal has found the secret sauce in terms of what’s needed: consistent caring adults in a young person’s life, but also letting them see what’s possible by having high standards.” 

Sixty-eight percent of Legal Outreach graduates finished college with GPAs of 3.0 or higher, according to a recent report, with 21 percent at or above 3.5. And many do pursue legal careers — 10 percent of participants who graduated college are pursuing or have obtained a J.D. 

A sign greets visitors to Legal Outreach headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.

“A lot of organizations out there are helping kids get to college, but when you look at the percentages of those who get through college, it’s abysmal,” said O’Neal, now 60. “You have to ask yourself ‘Why?’ Part of that has to do with finances; I certainly understand that. But it also has to do with people not being prepared for it.”  

O’Neal has been pressured by funders and other educators to expand, but he’s been wary of sacrificing quality for size — especially given how unreliable funding can be. The program gets about 60 percent of its money from foundations and the rest from individuals.  

But O’Neal did help a group in New Jersey start the NJ Legal Education Empowerment Program, a nonprofit affiliated with Seton Hall Law School that uses Legal Outreach’s model. It celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and has graduated more than 140 students to date. 

In 2008, after decades bouncing around to whatever Harlem school would give the group space, Legal Outreach raised enough money to complete a $3 million renovation of a former leather factory in Long Island City. Inside the refurbished building, a modern, spacious three-story space, earnest students are scattered about, their expressions purposeful — but they are quick to laugh and smile as well. They look comfortable, at home, like they know they are in a space where people care about them. Of course, they are not free of adolescent angst — but at Legal Outreach that angst is more about grades and SATs than Instagram and BFFs. 

Some students return to work for the program after college and graduate school. Darrius Moore, a 25-year-old Legal Outreach alum, took a job as an academic advisor with the program after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College, in Pennsylvania. Though his degree is in social work, Moore said his summer internship at a prominent Manhattan law firm paid dividends in college. 

“It gives you the opportunity to see what corporate America is like, how a law firm operates, which is a profession that is foreign to most of us,” he said. “It encourages you to think, ‘I can exist in this world.’ So when you get to college, you say to yourself, ‘Okay, I have interacted with this demographic of people before. I can compete.’” 

Cooper said that her students’ strong writing and oral communication skills help boost their self-confidence and dispel misconceptions about their abilities. As an example of this, Cooper tells a story about an alumna who went before the college dean after getting into a physical altercation with her roommate and surprised him with her use of logic and reasoning. “Her mother called us back and said, ‘Those constitutional law debates really helped. The dean pulled me over and said, I don’t know how she learned how to do that.’ She presented such a strong, cogent argument that she stayed in school and the other girl was kicked out.” 

Of all Legal Outreach’s programs, Cooper said she believes the transition-to-college workshop deserves the most credit for helping students finish college. It covers academic as well as social issues — the meaning of consent, how to respond to racial micro-aggressions, proper ways of interacting with professors, handling roommate conflicts and what to do if financial aid falls through. Cooper peruses The Chronicle of Higher Education for real-life case studies to present to students. 

“For our kids, going to college is as different as going to another country,” Cooper said. “Knowing what’s coming and having tools to deal with it allows them to navigate in this new world.” 

Mejia said she’s grateful that Legal Outreach has pushed her to excel. “The kids I go to school with don’t necessarily try, aren’t the most motivated kids,” she said. Three years at Legal Outreach has changed her outlook, she added.  

She expects to soon earn a place as the second-ranked student in her class, overtaking the girl who currently holds that spot. “If not for Legal Outreach, I wouldn’t have had any idea of what my options are,” she said. “I would have taken that list my school gave us and told my mom, ‘Hey, I don’t have to go to college. I can just work.’” 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter. 

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