Ready for the Next Big Step

Ella Calzada at the High School Fair

WHEDco’s 15th Annual High School Fair Connects Hundreds of Students with Top High Schools

Ella Calzada walks up to the Cardinal Spellman High School table at WHEDco’s 15th Annual High School Fair. She already knows that she’s interested in this school; it’s in her Top 5.

“At the high school fair last year, I got a first look at different high schools and programs, and now I know what I need to do to succeed,” says Ella, who’s also looking into Bard High School Early College and the High School of Art & Design, among others.

Now an 8th grader at the Bronx Academy of Promise Charter School, Ella has participated in WHEDco’s afterschool program since Kindergarten. But her connection with WHEDco began long before that: She remembers visiting PS/MS 218 as a little girl with her dad, Alex Fermín, when he worked at our After-School Enrichment Program. Alex himself is a WHEDco graduate.

The Annual High School Fair is part of Project STEP, WHEDco’s middle-to-high-school transition program at PS/MS 218. This year, hundreds of 7th grade students from WHEDco’s afterschool program at PS/MS 218 and 8th graders from our partner schools, Highbridge Green School and the South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School, were able to connect with 40 high schools from across New York City and beyond. It’s a big difference from the very first fair, where only 2 high schools were in attendance.

“I’ve seen this program make the biggest difference in our students’ lives: to see them apply to the best high schools, and actually get in, completely changes the trajectory of their lives,” says Nicole Jennings, Director of WHEDco’s Project STEP and JAM Program.

Nicole, who’s been organizing the Fair for the past 12 years, emphasizes the importance of connecting our students to resources that they may otherwise not be able to access on their own.

“Some of our students come from families in which their parents may not be citizens or speak English, or they may not feel part of the culture or our democracy. We help them to realize that their voices do matter and that they can make a difference. That starts with us listening to them and teaching them that they have something to say, and that they’re no different from a more privileged child,” she adds.

WHEDco’s Youth Education and Development programs seek to empower students by providing the skills and tools they need to overcome barriers that may prevent them from accessing or succeeding in high school, college, and beyond. Moreover, programmatic initiatives like Project STEP, JAM, and Teen Program place enormous value on instilling a sense of social justice, encouraging students to become advocates for themselves and their communities.

“Kids in our programs revalue their sense of self, and they learn to believe that they can obtain mastery. One of the things we’ve found consistently –even with kids that don’t have material means– is that they’re selfless. They’re always looking at how they can impact those around them,” says Davon Russell, President of WHEDco, who organized the first high school fair 15 years ago.

Davon and Nicole point out that there was a time when there were even more high schools participating in the fair. The lesson learned? Quality over quantity. Today, we may have slightly less schools participating, but they’re only the best.

As for the future? Ella is excited about high school, and confident that WHEDco has prepared her for the challenges ahead.

“WHEDco has helped me with sports, academically, becoming a better person, getting involved in community work, and opening up to people. They helped me to have the confidence to take a step forward onto the future,” she says.