BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake’s More2Life Foundation first visited Harlem’s Sojourner Truth School in the summer of 2018. After learning more about the school’s situation and needs, More2Life began to greater focus its efforts toward helping the struggling school.
In 2014, the state of New York designated schools in the lowest 10% of student academic performance as renewal schools. Sojourner Truth fell into this category.
Further, the K-8 school had been named a “failure factory” by New York City school critics.
“Because of its chronic absenteeism, low student performance (in addition to being on) the potentially persistently most dangerous schools list, it was given that designation of renewal, which means it would be provided with wraparound supports in order to help it transform itself into a school in good standing,” head principle Claudia Aguirre said.
Although Sojourner Truth is in one of the wealthiest school districts in New York City, the school is one of the highest poverty schools in the district. Aguirre, a Columbia University alumna, said their poverty rate is about 99%.
With a demographic in which 96% of the students are minorities, Sojourner Truth is one of the few schools in the district with a growing English language learner population. According to data collected for the 2017-18 school year by New York State Education Department’s Student Information Repository System, 98% of its students are deemed economically disadvantaged.
According to the More2Life Foundation, two years after the school was named a failure, it is in good standing with the New York State Department of Education for the first time in over a decade. Math proficiency among students at the school has increased by 162.5% since 2018. In that same time, proficiency in English language arts has increased by 24%.
Aguirre said their attendance has risen above the state requirement. Schoolwide, it is currently at 94.6%, and she said some grades are at an even higher percentage than that.
She said the More2Life Foundation has helped her incentivize what she called some of their less attractive goals, such as attendance. They have done so through gear, gift cards, recognition and a mentorship program.
“Being at school every day is not something that middle school students always get excited about, and having the extra motivation of knowing that they will be recognized at the assemblies, having a FaceTime appointment with their mentor who’s going to ask them, ‘Were you here every day? Did you meet your goal?’ really has helped carry us through,” Aguirre said.
Former BYU director of football operations and current More2Life executive director Duane Busby explained that the foundation also helps incentivize the teachers, as they are now often recruited by other schools. He said they provide all of the school employees some sort of Christmas gift to help keep their efforts at Sojourner Truth.
“The school’s actually improved enough that other schools are now trying to hire their teachers, which was probably unthinkable a little while ago, but that’s a tribute to the administration, the staff and the job they’re doing,” Busby said.
In April 2019, Aguirre and school guidance counselor Mia Gaytan selected 10 male middle school students who participate in the school lacrosse program to be paired with 10 BYU players. With Gaytan’s supervision, the students video chatted with their player mentors every week or two.
This was the first time in the More2Life and Sojourner Truth partnership that a one-on-one mentoring program was created.
“We wanted to make the relationship more than just once a year where we go out there and see them for that day,” BYU wide receiver Micah Simon said. “So, we were trying to figure out ways on just having them always remember us and a way for us to always push them and try to inspire them.” Simon facilitates and coordinates the mentorship program from BYU’s end.
Gaytan shared a story about one of her eighth-graders who will be attending a boarding school next year. She said he was paired with an out-of-state player who is African American, and he asked this BYU mentor how to handle attending a primarily white school away from home as an African American.
Gaytan said this student hadn’t asked anyone at the Harlem school, but felt connected enough to his mentor to ask him.
“I think that was one of the biggest benefits: for them to have people that they can ask questions that they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking either us here in school or the after-school people who they also have a good relationship with,” Gaytan said.
In the future, Gaytan said she hopes the program will extend beyond a couple of months. She also said she hopes the More2Life mentors will become more consistent with their scheduling and include females.
Sojourner Truth teacher Emily Simler agreed that extending the program to include females could have major benefits.
“I know that it’s been really powerful for a lot of the boys to have that player and someone who can explain to them, ‘These are the things you need to do to get to where I got to,’” Simler said. “So, being able to give that to the girls would be, I think, really, really nice.”
Sojourner Truth and More2Life Event
Throughout the year, the More2Life leadership stays in close contact with Aguirre in order to communicate needs and solutions.
For example, Aguirre shared that the school consists of a population with many obstacles. She said these challenges can include access to dress code clothing, winter clothing and school supplies.
“The More2Life Foundation has been able to support us in making sure we were able to match students up with those needs so that when kids arrive at school, we’re ready to serve, and they can be ready to learn without having those barriers in place,” Aguirre said.
The More2Life Foundation also donated $10,000 to Sojourner Truth in August 2018 to help fund things like instructional materials, educational trips, classroom libraries, winter clothing, uniforms and laundry detergent.
In addition to the assistance they provide throughout the year, the More2Life group visited Sojourner Truth at their Harlem location on June 24. The players and coaches divided up with each grade level for classroom sessions as well as award ceremonies, lunch and outdoor activities.
During the classroom sessions, the players shared their personal backgrounds, answered questions, led an activity and handed out More2Life and BYU gear. Each student received a T-shirt, BYU and Sojourner Truth stickers and a lanyard.
Players helped encourage the students to set goals by doing an activity called “my one word.” This consisted of the kids choosing a word from their REACH goals that they wanted to implement into their lives. They then wrote this word on a nametag and wore it.
Sojourner Truth uses the acronym REACH to encourage its students. The acronym stands for respect, enthusiasm, achievement, citizenship and hard work.
Two award ceremonies were also held — one for the Pre-K through third graders and another for the fourth through eighth-graders. At these ceremonies, the students’ academic and attendance achievements were recognized.
Thirty-nine awards for perfect or near perfect attendance were given out. The 20 perfect attendance students received a $100 Nike gift card and the 19 students with near perfect attendance received a $50 Nike gift card.
While one group held its assembly, the other was in the cafeteria eating Chick-fil-A provided by More2Life. The players ate with their assigned groups, interacting and bonding with the kids through conversation and elementary games like patty cake and children’s songs.
The day was concluded outside with inflatables from the school’s carnival, basketball, 4-square, catch, spikeball, Jenga and catered Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.