Gen-One co-founder Ian Joyce helps eighth-graders from Eastway Middle School apply for high school magnet programs in February.

Teachers at a high-poverty Charlotte middle school aim star students at college

Two teachers at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Eastway Middle School recently created Gen-One, a program to provide enrichment and college-prep counseling to high-scoring students at the east Charlotte school where many come from immigrant families.

The effort started when a Nepali student who had gone on to high school came back to ask her math teacher, Gregory Gabriel, for help getting ready for college. As a middle school teacher he didn’t feel equipped to help her become her family’s first college graduate, but he enlisted a college adviser from Charlotte Catholic High School. The student got a full scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill.

Gabriel and Ian Joyce, a social studies teacher, created Gen-One to work with eighth-graders who scored in the 90th percentile or higher on their seventh-grade state math and reading exams. Volunteers provide cultural outings and guidance at Eastway, and paid college-prep counselors will work with the students as they move through high school. A SEED20 grant and donors provided the start-up money, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools approved Gen-One as a pilot in hopes of expanding to more schools if it succeeds.

The program started small this year, with 10 students. Ezequiel Aguilar, a 14-year-old whose parents came from Mexico, carries a stack of certificates in his book bag, including several for earning the highest math scores in his class, to remind himself that he’s smart enough to go to college. He says he’d like to become an engineer and perhaps build hospitals.

Dayanara Leyva’s family moves a lot, so Eastway is her eighth school. She’s classified as gifted, but the changes mean she hasn’t always been placed in honors classes. She hopes to become a physical therapist.

Joyce encouraged the Gen-One students to apply for magnet high schools, rather than moving on to the high-poverty neighborhood school they’d attend if they didn’t opt out. Dayanara got into an International Baccalaureate magnet at East Mecklenburg High, but Ezequiel was among more than 200 rising ninth-graders who were wait-listed for the Early College Engineering magnet at UNC Charlotte.

Joyce and Gabriel say it’s important for these high-potential students to land in settings where their peers and teachers will constantly reinforce their ambition. “I’ve seen many of my kids kind of lose the path,” Gabriel says.