For the past four summers, Karim Abouelnaga has been focused on one thing: stopping the loss of academic skills and knowledge that occurs during the summer months. Known in academic circles as “the summer achievement gap,” it affects elementary and middle school students in general, but low-income and minority students are especially at risk. By the fall, students can be as many as five months behind their peers if they haven’t been engaged during the summer: They forget information during the vacation itself, and they also spend the first couple of months of the new school year attempting to catch up. Some of them never do.
Abouelnaga, 22, initially came across this problem while working on a class project at Cornell three years ago, which led him to co-found the renowned education program, Practice Makes Perfect (PMP).
The core tenet of the program, which runs five days a week, is that students teach each other. Abouelnaga noticed early on that younger children are more receptive to teachers from their own neighborhoods or backgrounds. At PMP, it’s common to see a 10th grader teaching a fifth grader. In 2013, the program was recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference.
This summer marks a crucial turning point for PMP. As the program continues to grow, Abouelnaga has changed the business model from fully philanthropic to a more sustainable fee-for-service approach. He’s hoping this will allow PMP to expand and reach areas where its services are most needed. Abouelnaga recently spoke to The Atlantic about PMP’s growth and the state of education in America.
This is the fourth summer for PMP. How has the program changed over the years?
It is too surreal. I still feel like it was just yesterday when I picked up the report on the achievement gap in college. When we originally started working on PMP, we were thinking of national expansion—almost too early. We quickly learned how difficult it is to do our work and are still working to set reasonable expectations of growth.
This summer we made changes to our business model. Now we have a more sustainable fee-for-service model that works more closely with individual schools to share data and drive longer-term change. We also had the most selective college internship process, accepting about 5 percent of the college students who applied to teach in our classrooms. For the first time, we partnered with a charter network, Friendship Charter Schools in DC, to bring our first pilot program out there, and we piloted a program with an independent charter school in New York City.
This summer, we are also working a lot more closely with the New York City Department of Education to support the work we are carrying out in East New York, Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens—two of the most struggling neighborhoods in New York City.
What do you see as the program’s greatest accomplishment?
This year, our first group of mentors applied to college, and there were 22 of them. Collectively, they got into 120 plus universities across the United States, including Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and NYU. Their college acceptances to some of the most competitive and resource-rich institutions is tangible validation of the impact we are having.