The YAC: A Bridge and Catalyst

What kind of mother allows her novice teenage daughter driver to take a 2-hour solo trip from rural Sussex County, Delaware to the state’s largest and most crime-ridden city? As I gear up for my twice-per-month trek to Wilmington, Delaware to participate in the Youth Advocacy Council program –as the sole representative from my part of the state–it is not lost on me how dysfunctional my life seems in the conservative community in which I live. Most people in my community could recollect every time they have ridden on that highway. Only the craziest would send a teen –let alone a teenage girl — unaccompanied into the city. But in order for my superhero single mother of two kids, a former Delaware School Principal of the Year, to do what she does, we all have to be a bit crazy for the cause.

It takes initiative and independence to insulate myself from the limitations of my mother’s intense work schedule. On most days that means I make my way home late after a full slate of evening extracurricular activities. On the Wednesdays and Sundays when the Youth Advocacy Council — a group of high school students creating advocacy campaigns to improve Delaware’s schools — is in session, that means four hours of driving stand between me and a treasured opportunity. Fortunately, four hours of driving is no match for my trusty Kia Soul and murder mystery podcasts.

As I approach Wilmington it is not surprising that it evokes fear in so many from my town. Newsweek dubbed Wilmington “Murder Town USA” and a recent report found that teens are more likely to be shot in Wilmington than any other U.S. city. Yet, for me, it is a place where I have been sharpened, challenged, and found a diverse, yet like-minded community of peers.

It was in Wilmington that I first learned to administer an insulin shot and assemble my first glucagon. This newfound skill was not the fruit of my normal curiosity. It was a necessity after my younger brother was transported to a children’s hospital in the city and diagnosed with Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes during my Sophomore year. It was at a time when life was trying to be my mother’s Kryptonite as my grandmother passed and we learned of my brother’s diagnosis in a span of a few months. I was reeling but became the sidekick that every superhero needs to overcome the most challenging situations.

In Wilmington, I also grew in my fight for educational equity as a member of the Youth Advocacy Council.  During our meetings, I was not the only seventeen-year-old dressed in a pantsuit. I was not the only seventeen-year-old who wanted to talk about teacher tenure, learn about school choice policy, analyze the impact of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or debate the merits of House Bill 60. On the council, I moved beyond being someone who witnessed and admired my mother’s efforts to improve the education system. As I worked with my peers on policy goals, strategies and tactics, I became her partner in the struggle.

On this particular session of the Council, we were in for a treat. We had the opportunity to speak with the Delaware Secretary of Education, legislators, the President of the State Board and many other leaders during previous sessions. My peers and I were giddy as we were about to meet Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester– the first woman and person of color to be elected to Congress in Delaware. When she shared her story she mentioned how she too was a single mother at some point and how her path to service started as an advocate at a very young age. A superhero I could identify with in so many ways! I was a long way from my mother and from Sussex County, but I was in the place I was meant to be.

-Madeline Schneider

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Madeline featured on the far left

04/24 BSD School Board Meeting Transcript

Below is the transcript from the Public Comment part of last night’s agenda. Two students, Alphina Kamara and Alexis Cope, questioned board members about how they plan to increase African American/Latino enrollment in AP/IB courses.

Alphina and Alexis:

Hello my name is Alphina Kamara and this is Alexis Cope. We are juniors at Mt. Pleasant High School. I am currently enrolled in 2 AP classes and Alexis is on the IB track. We both are part of TeenSHARP, a selective college prep program that prepares us for access into the nation’s top colleges. As you can see, we are high achieving students, eager to accomplish great things after high school. But when we look around our AP/IB classrooms, there are only a handful of people who look like us. It’s a very isolating experience, and it is the reason we are coming to you today.

So what do we know? We know that, according to the Delaware Department of Education, 30.4% of students at Mt. Pleasant are African American and 45% are white. And yet, we see that over 85% of students taking advantage of STEM related AP/IB courses at Mt. Pleasant are white. We know that the racial achievement gap is a real national issue, to which Delaware is not immune. And we know that taking AP/IB courses directly affects one’s access to top colleges and subsequently economic prosperity.

Some might say that the reason for this disproportionate enrollment is because minority students are not obtaining the grades necessary to transition smoothly into more rigorous classes. But Mt. Pleasant offers open enrollment to APs, and still this demographic is not applying at equal rates. There is clearly a much deeper, more systemic issue at play.

Many of the 30% of black students at our school will be first generation college goers. Without the advantage of parental guidance, these students may not understand the importance of striving for AP courses. For example, we are both a part of TeenSHARP, and if we hadn’t benefited from their advising, we might have been too intimidated to take Mt. Pleasant’s toughest courses, even though we are certainly capable.

So you see we cannot blame students for this gap. Our schools have a responsibility to place special emphasis on those lacking any sort of guidance around college access.

Therefore, we want to know how this school board is increasing access to rigorous courses for all? But more specifically, given that certain demographics are more affected by lack of access, how does this board intend to substantially raise the amount of African American and Latino students participating in AP/IB courses?

John Skrobot (Board President): Well part of the issue is that, with kids in the city, it’s very important that we build a foundation for academic success at the elementary school level. And we have been implementing this and in these cases it’s been very successful. We have just been recognized by the state for uh…what was it for? (looks to superintendent)

Mark Holodick (Superintendent): For their math growth last year, in terms of DCAS scores in grades 3rd through 5th.

Skrobot: Right. So we’re trying to build from the foundations of the elementary schools to give these children a chance once they progress from middle school into high school. So that when they get to high school, they’re better prepared. I’m sure this board would be open to any suggestions that you might have to guide us on how to help children.

Alphina: As of now we believe we need to be putting in place more and better trained guidance counselors to adequately meet with additional students. I’ve noticed that our counselors are overburdened and they aren’t able to truly guide us in the right directions because they’re too busy.

Skrobot: Well, um, every year you have a student application week, where the students can come apply to colleges in the school. And then, not this year but the prior year, the Education Foundation helped with students that couldn’t afford the application fees. I think we’ll have to reach out to the schools again next year, so that students that may not consider applying due to their financial backgrounds can get the help they need.

Cheryl Siskin: I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. Not just the financial burden, but the emotional support, the mentoring, the guidance and the confidence and…

Alexis: We are advocating for students to have greater access to challenging coursework.

Siskin: Right. So I appreciate very much what you’re saying there. We do have the Achievers Academy which tries to bring kids up. The AVID program we have. The extent to which you guys can help spread the word that it’s better to take an AP class and get a B than an easy class and get an A. That’s a hard message for us to get across and we’ve got to get the word into your communities. So from my perspective I think some of this comes from internally, organically as you would present from inside your community. I love the idea of more guidance counselors and I hope that one day we are able to support this. But you guys can be role models in your community and help sread the word that people need to push themselves harder. And I think this needs to happen as early as Kindergarten, maybe even as early as pre-K. I mean, we’re advocates of education but we need the community to be advocates too. So if you can think of ways we can work together, I’d be amenable to hearing ways that we can share the importance of education from early on. Because it builds on itself.

(quick exchange with board member Kristin Pidgeon asking to know more about TeenSHARP)

Holodick: So Alphina and Alexis, first and foremost, thank you for being here tonight and speaking on this important issue. When Mr. Simmons (sp?) and I investigated TeenSHARP as a program, one of the things that we were interested in was this different approach to empowering students, in particular students of color, who have historically not achieved at the level they should and access college at a rate that’s acceptable. And the idea that you mentioned of adding counselors, is a good one but it’s a very costly one so I don’t think it’s a realistic idea right now…Going back to the conversation that he and I had with the founders of TeenSHARP was the concept of empowering students like yourselves, who would then work with other prospective students that have the potential to take high level academic courses and ultimately go on to college. Because we know, it’s a combination of both skill and will, and if you identify the students who have the skill (and we can do that and have done that), it’s you, the peers, who have the potential to help with the will side of it. To do some of the work that guidance counselors would do with your peers. So we’re relying on you within this program. That’s something we’re going to analyze very closely, is the impact of TeenSHARP. Because as Ms. Siskin and others mentioned, we have AVID, we have advancement in individual determination for years and we know it works for all students. We know the Achievers Academy works. This is a little more focused on a particular subset of students and the concept is more about empowering students to suport one another and push one another and changing the culture and climate within the school through the students than it does the adults. You’re aware of that right?

Alphina: I’m aware but the purpose is to be advocates, so we advocate in our schools just as we advocate here for them.

Holodick: I think that’s wonderful. Continue to advocate. Please note my message is in support of you advocating. But it’s also in support of you helping other students achieve the promise that they have as well.

Siskin: So be leaders in your own community,  your school community, your residential community, and other communities that you’re a part of. You have the courage to talk to us, you can talk to others too and be leaders and model the examples of success. I think that’s great. Is Brandywine High School on the list of schools that TeenSHARP accepts?

Alphina: Yes we have students from Brandywine.

Holodick: The people that run TeenSHARP, Atnre and his wife Tatiana, when we met with them there were specific walkaways and deliverables that we are relying on through this program. And it’s wonderful to see two of the “deliverables”, so to speak, tonight with the courage to come and speak. So I thank you.

Alphina: No, thank you.

Something to think about:

Students are encouraged to be a part of the solution, but cannot vote for the school board members that represent them. If we expect these students to solve the racial achievement gap on behalf of the district, why are they not given the same amount of influence over policy decisions?


Opinions Can’t be Wrong, right?


My mom always told me to wait one day before addressing something that upset me, and three days for anything that got me close to punching somebody. I almost failed her this week. But now that I’ve taken my deep breaths and my 72 hours, here is what I have to say.

Our country is divided. That much is clear. And the dividing line partitions two great passions, both attempting to convince the other how this country should proceed and the beliefs it should uphold.

But Jesus we’re aggressive about it, myself included. We have so much conviction to stand our ground and remain unwavering in the face of real and dangerous conflict. I’ve been called a hypocrite for showing intolerance of others’ opinions post-election. So I wanted to fact check myself and make sure I was conscious of what shaped the views I defend. I wanted to be able to explain that opinions, when not based on fact, should not be so viscerally preserved. They could even, dare I say it, be wrong.

So first, it is important to understand where our beliefs* come from:

It is human nature to form assumptions based on what we’ve seen, who we’ve met, and the experiences we’ve had. Beliefs are formed off of these assumptions: right vs wrong, truth vs lies, enemy vs. friend. They establish our fears too. What bad experiences taught you to be afraid of whatever it is your afraid of?Image result for experiences create fear

  • Our sense of empathy, or lack thereof

Our ability to empathize with someone else’s viewpoint substantiates, and sometimes helpfully contradicts what we believe. It allows us to transcend the confines of our worldview, and expose ourselves to perspectives that may be unrelatable. This does not make their opinions more or less valid, but it does give you access to ideas and feelings you may not have considered. In every scenario and with every value, it is vital to do your research and gather as many points of view as possible. Several resources are available to help you strengthen your ability to empathize with others. The best place to start is trying to defend the opposing view of what you believe, it won’t be easy.Image result for empathy gif

  • What we have to gain/lose

This deals less with where our beliefs come from, and more about the intensity behind those beliefs. Our conviction is often fueled, or dampened, by what we get out of a situation; both factors highly influence our behavior. For example, when we want someone to like us (something to gain), we tend to downplay our opinions. Otherwise, it could mean cut ties or, at the very least, an uncomfortable conversation.

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So we hold our tongue, or water down our opinion in the presence of those we don’t want to offend. However, if we’re in a setting where group think allows us to feel as though we have nothing to lose, our opinion grows more fierce with each new addition to the group.

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Think about your most fiercely held beliefs. What do you get out of them? What would you lose if you were to give up those opinions? Who else might be affected by your opinions regardless of whether you have something to gain or lose? Reminding yourself that others have a stake in your opinion is part of empathizing. What you put out to the world no longer becomes just yours. It has the potential to benefit or harm others too.

Now, how do you prove that an opinion is correct, or, more correct than others? This requires everyone understanding first that opinions can be wrong.

  1. If an opinion is based on bad data, in can be invalidated, just as any other piece of information. Solution: Fact check. Where are you getting your beliefs from? Do you know what makes a source credible? If not, here you go.
  2. Opinions that can harm others either on their surface or in effect, are no longer legitimate. Even if a person is a known jerk, and you have multiple people confirming this, saying it out loud and inspiring others to take action because of it does nothing to enhance your life, but it could seriously damage someone else’s.**  Similarly, when a person tells you that you’ve hurt them, you don’t get to be a jerk and decide that you didn’t. Image result for you hurt me therefore I don't like youSolution: Ask yourself:
    • Who might this opinion hurt if I perpetuate it? And, if I am aware this hurts others and I’m okay with that, why?
    • What value do I derive from others’ hurt?
    • By saying these hurtful things, I acknowledge there is something I fear; what is it?

Opinions should be malleable, evaluative, and based on thorough analysis. I suggest testing your beliefs via Bloom’s Taxonomy. How does it hold up against rigorous evaluation? Before you can prove an opinion is “more correct”, it has to be proven true in the first place.

If you take anything away from this post it is this:

  • If your opinion has the potential to negatively impact another but has no effect on you- it is wrong. (Nope. Don’t wanna hear it. Wrong.) Ex: “A woman’s right to choose what to do with her body should be revoked.” (Unless you are a woman, your opinion is wrong because the impact of that opinion will not affect you).
  • Analyze your every belief and write down the corresponding gain/loss. Be brutally honest with yourself. Much of your reasoning may have been subconscious this whole time.
  • Critically evaluate your opinions to see if they can hold up against these tests.

Disclaimer: I am by no means the arbiter of truth. But we’re overdue for the commencement of critical thinking, and this is where it starts.

*For the purpose of this post, opinions are synonymous with beliefs
** This is something I personally have to work on. I’m an ENTJ, and therefore quick to call out others on their BS.

TeenSHARP Opening Ceremony Speech

Sharing the speech I gave at TeenSHARP’s opening ceremony last week:

Good afternoon! Thank you everyone for being here today, to celebrate such an impressive group of students. Before I discuss the plans for this year and all that we have in store, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on why we are all here in the first place. Why does TeenSHARP exist and why is this organization such a necessity, not only for students, but for the community, the state, and ultimately the nation?

Primarily, TeenSHARP exists to combat “educational inequities” that affect students of color. For example, only 14% of high achieving high schoolers in Delaware are attending colleges that match their academic potential. Among those who are low income, 30% aren’t going anywhere after high school.

Directly correlated with this, are the economic reports that forecast by 2020, 30% percent of jobs in Delaware will require a Bachelor’s degree. But only 21% of African Americans and 15% of Latinos are currently equipped with such a credential. These barriers to quality education, and meaningful, high paying employment will persist if we don’t help our students gain admission into top universities that also meet 100% of financial need.

But this is half the battle. TeenSHARP also exists because we see the capabilities of young people being vastly underutilized. In our presentations and discussions, you’ve heard us talk about the importance of authentic youth empowerment. And when it comes to education policy, we know that young people are the biggest stakeholders and deserve a seat at the table. Part of our job is to encourage our students to think critically and question their surroundings, embrace leadership roles, utilize their voices and be unafraid to challenge the injustices they see.

Over the course of this year, we’ll talk extensively about racial injustice, in and outside the realm of education. We’ll discuss terms like “affirmative action” and “micro-aggressions”, terminology that is paramount to shaping your understanding of our current society.

The other day I argued with one of my friends because he had said that what America needs is a gradual revolution against racial inequality. I reject that claim because, as the black lives matter movement crescendos, in the thralls of police brutality, and as we continue to practice civil disobedience only to be met with inaction, “gradual” is not an option anymore.

In TeenSHARP, time is precious and we move with a sense of urgency. The stakes (in this case our students’ outcomes and their roles as future leaders) are too high to wait for policies and laws to tell us things need to change. President Johnson wrote in his commencement address at Howard University, that much of the black community “is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and raise the entire cover” if we are to be successful.

TeenSHARP is so much more than just a college prep program and we pledge to do our best to help lift every corner. But in no way do we do it alone. We may have grass roots but these roots are thriving and multiplying. As Tatiana mentioned, we have more volunteers than ever before and I’d like to take a moment to have TeenSHARP staff, instructors, mentors, advisors, tutors, and all other volunteers stand and be recognized.

Students, in addition to your parents, these are your advocates and your teammates. This year, all of us have worked together to provide you with the following opportunities:

-Admission officers from Wesleyan, Williams, Washington University, and several others will be coming to meet you as well as Governor Markell

-We will be hosting a panel on leading change in the community as well as one on careers in healthcare, pharmacy, and philanthropy

-We are organizing several days of service and an internship fair, and we have college tours planned for Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Haverford, UPenn, and a two-day trip to Boston U, Harvard, Tufts, and MIT

-Parents, we are also coordinating workshops for you throughout the year and we hope that you will participate in as many as you can


So this year, I challenge you to take full advantage of these opportunities and this network of champions available to you. Breach your comfort zones and inspire others in the process. And most of all know that everyone in this room is invested in your success.

Nothing is gradual about TeenSHARP, but we’re certainly revolutionary. And I am proud to be at the forefront with such impactful leaders.




A Plea from Generations Y and Z

“Authentic Engagement”    “Youth Empowerment”

We like these words. Or at least you’d think we do, by the way politicians and professionals casually bandy them about; you’d think they were on par with phrases like “systemic reform” and “inequity.” But just like the latter concepts, these too have become marred and muddled by rhetoric, to the point where they are only ever brought up as a matter of good housekeeping. When it seems opportune, the phrase is placed on its pedestal, people are invited to come look, photographs are taken as proof of presence. Then, in the same manner, these words are quickly thrown into the back of the closet until the next time Skepticism and Disapproval come knocking.

This is nothing new. The notion that young people can be as powerful as any seasoned professional has become just that: a notion, a fun talking point at parties- not something many care to actualize. But as a millennial entering the workforce, as a political activist, and as a mentor to high school students, I feel it’s time we analyze how perception and fear allowed these terms to become such false dichotomies.


Ben Widdicombe’s article on millennials in the workplace suggests that much of what is hindering employers from capitalizing on the potential of young people is rooted in the way they are perceived. Our generation (circa 1980-2000) is often criticized for having a brazen sense of entitlement and narcissistic tendencies. Marry these traits with our constant craving for reinforcement and it’s no wonder employers are afraid to commit.

It’s not like we enjoy having these…idiosyncrasies. But it’s important for older generations to understand that they are bred out of an oppressive awareness of the instability we face. Where a Baby Boomer at 22 could earn a living wage and buy a house without a degree, today’s young people enter the workforce criminally indebted and barely able to afford rent. In the words of Malcolm X, “we been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”

Success now orients itself solely around what we have already accomplished, not what we are capable of achieving. This is why we crave reinforcement; nothing is secure anymore, and these circumstances make even the most confident of young professionals wary of where they stand. We battle the urge to overcompensate because we literally can’t afford to be seen as incompetent.

So in terms of authentically empowering us, I’d like to offer a very simple formula:

Empowerment= Inspiration + Delegation

Manager of Davis Wright Tremaine’s  Diversity Initiatives Karen Russell asserts in her Tedx Talk that “people are your most important assets.” DWT conducted research to find out what factors determine the success of their younger colleagues and found that, almost unanimously, those who advanced faster and further had all benefited from a mentor. Young people who were able to chase a white rabbit could more confidently identify goals, take risks, and access beneficial networks.

Equally important is the ability to delegate more than menial tasks to us. London business school professor John Hunt notes that only 30 percent of managers think they can delegate well, and of those, only one in three is considered a good delegator by his or her subordinates. This means only about one manager in ten really knows how to empower others.

So while we are capable of advocating for ourselves, we need you to trust that we’ll take advantage of every opportunity you throw our way.

That’s if you really want us to…

I’ll explain. I’m currently an Americorps VISTA for TeenSHARP, a pivotal education nonprofit in Delaware, and I consider myself very fortunate to be working for an employer who possesses a keen sense of empathy. There’s a Musketeerian atmosphere in the office, with a fair balance of freedom and accountability, flexibility and structure. I have been hard pressed to find other environments like this in today’s modern workplace. Which leads me to question what could be preventing other professionals from seeing young people the way she does (i.e. full of potential and capability).

This is my hypothesis:


A couple of weeks ago I went with a group of high school juniors from TeenSHARP to the Annual Youth Delegation Conference in Dover. This is where the state invites 11th graders to propose a bill or campaign around relevant political issues and present them to presiding legislators. My students chose to discuss college affordability (or lack thereof) and spent two weeks researching, citing existing legislation, and drafting amendments. They learned how to structure a bill so that they could present it as if it had actually made it to the floor. This was not a homework assignment, this was not for recognition. This whole endeavor was to enact change and prove that high school students could offer substantive policy solutions.

The excitement in the room was palpable. Students from across the state came professionally dressed, briefcases in hands, business cards tucked in jacket pockets. The Senators and Congressman took the stage, seemingly undeterred by the sight of Skepticism and Disapproval lurking in the back of the room. Sure enough, the orations ensued, the youth were praised to high heavens for their achievements! Banners were flung! Photographers captured their best angles!

And before students could present their proposals…the legislators had slipped briskly out the back door.

But like I said, this is nothing new.

I could have told the students that none of their ideas would make it past the podium. I could have prepared them for the disappointment. Perhaps I should have. But when they asked me why no one stayed around to listen, I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s the same reason why most of the general public are denied an authentic seat at the table. And it’s the same reason why some professionals are afraid to grant millennials greater access to leadership roles.

For some, authentic empowerment translates to relinquishment of power, loss of authority, and potential exposure. Delegating means the possibility of mistakes being made. 

But I urge everyone to note the following:

We may need guidance, but we seek opportunity with entrepreneurial vigor.

We may make mistakes, but we are not as averse to criticism as is portrayed.

We may seem restless, but we are loyal to those who see our potential.

You may fear our clamor to challenge the status quo, but we’d rather be “empowered” in the way it was defined, not as a campaign catchphrase with as much substance as the smoke lingering in those private backrooms.

If this seems too much to ask, if the decisions being made are too precarious to withstand examination from “outsiders”, then be prepared to fault Generation Z for the same transgressions.