Thankful and Ready to Take on The World

John Belizaire
4 min readNov 19, 2017

Wassa Bagayoko ’13 is the first girl in her family to graduate high school, and she enrolled as a freshman at Brown University this year.

This achievement was made possible by her experience at Harlem Academy.

Harlem Academy (HA) is a unique, independent school committed to a meritocracy where hard work drives the opportunity to realize potential, and where no qualified family is turned away for an inability to pay. The school’s tuition is on a sliding scale based on income, and 98% of our students receive significant scholarship support.

At HA, Wassa received an education that help her reach her full potential.

As I sit down with my family this holiday season to reflect on the gifts I have received and those less fortunate, I reminisce about her story. She is an example of the incredible work our school does and why I am so involved as a trustee.

Below, is Wassa’s incredible story.

Before coming to Harlem Academy, Wassa Bagayoko ’13 was not being pushed to reach her potential. At Harlem Academy, she found the challenge she was seeking and thrived academically. She graduated with a full scholarship to the prestigious Chapin School. Now Wassa is enrolled as a freshman at Brown University.

In her Harlem Academy application, Wassa’s former elementary teachers recognized her academic abilities but lamented not having the means to help her thrive. “Wassa is one of the most creative, intelligent students I have ever taught,” wrote her fifth-grade teacher, “but she needs ways to be challenged further in every academic area.”

Like so many of New York City’s public and charter schools, Wassa’s elementary school focused on raising the grades and test scores of the lowest performing students. Teachers in these environments are left with limited time and resources to help push high-potential students from above average to excelling.

Thankfully, Wassa’s family heard about Harlem Academy from a friend and decided to apply. Like most of our students, Wassa entered with standardized test scores in the 75th percentile — too high to receive the attention she needed at public and charter schools, but too low to gain access to competitive gifted and talented programs or to earn a scholarship to attend a top private school.

Wassa worked hard from day one and thrived on Harlem Academy’s expectations for rigorous intellectual engagement and contribution to the community. Her test scores jumped 21 percentile points in just three years, and Wassa graduated testing in the top 10% of the nation in every subject.

However, her growth was not just in the form of test scores. Wassa also emerged as a poised, creative, and competitive young woman. Her dedication to personal achievement inspired everyone around her to grow as well. At Harlem Academy, she joined a reading buddies program for younger students, stretched herself in improv and theater, and dared to offer a counterexample or acknowledge a need for help in class discussions.

By the time she graduated from Harlem Academy, Wassa was ready for anything. She earned scholarships to four independent schools and chose to enroll at the Chapin School, an all-girls day school. It is among the list of top schools in the country. “At HA, we were held to very high standards,” she says. “The accelerated curriculum shaped my critical thinking, organization, and time management skills, which were key to being prepared in high school.”

Without the proper attention, high-potential students from low-income neighborhoods tend to languish by the time they reach high school. These students drop out of high school or do not graduate on time at twice the rate of their higher-income peers. By college, only 14% of first-year students at the nation’s top 160 universities come from the bottom half of the income distribution.

Wassa and her fellow Harlem Academy alumni are bucking these trends. Every graduate from our first two classes achieved on-time high school graduation, and almost all eligible alumni have already enrolled in four-year colleges.

This past May, Wassa became the first girl in her family to graduate high school, setting a beautiful example for her three younger siblings. Now Wassa is off to Brown University, where her growth and contribution are sure to continue.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without Harlem Academy,” Wassa explains. “It’s an amazing place to grow. I felt like a baby robin being prepped to fly from the nest in my years there. I came out of HA feeling independent and ready to take on the world.”

How you can Help Harlem Academy

  • Please donate to our scholarships, click here.
  • We are looking for a new Chief Development Director! The opportunity description can be found here.
  • See how many #futureleaders we created last year. Our 2016–2017 annual report is now available here.

Please share this story with anyone passionate about education.

John Belizaire is an accomplished serial entrepreneur and a member of Harlem Academy’s Board of Trustees. He is editor of CEOPLAYBOOK.IO — a medium publication. He lives in New York City.



John Belizaire

CEO of Soluna. I am learning to be a better CEO — and getting 1% better every day. I share my stories from 20+ yrs experience on ceoplaybook.co.