BEST participants at a recent Dale Carnegie Leadership Camp graduation; Aissatou Boye, left, Kayin Chambers, Jahi Jaramogi, Shawn Stepney Jr., Jasmine Young, Kaitlyn Gregg, Nicole Steele and Dora Evans. (Photo courtesy of Khalil Uqdah)

The Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust (BEST) was established in 1987 to help low-income, African-American students navigate the independent (private) school admissions process. After 27 years, BEST continues to fulfill this mission while also supplementing it with year round educational and personal development support for its students.

On an annual basis, BEST identifies approximately 90 students and guides them and their families through the independent school admissions process, according to Jessica Suriano, executive director for BEST.  The non-profit organization typically enrolls between 40 and 50 students in one of the 19 independent schools with whom they partner, and who provide the bulk of financial assistance to students assisted by BEST.

The schools are less reliant on BEST to help deliver a diverse student body than they were 27 years ago when BEST began its work, but the organization has adapted in order to better serve its partner schools, according to Crystal Lee, director of advancement for BEST, and an alumnus of the organization who attended the Garrison Forrest School in Owings Mills.

“We built the programming so that we can stay relevant to our member schools and still provide a service to them that they’re not going to get anywhere else,” said Lee.

Khalil Uqdah is also a BEST alum who currently serves as the director of programs and alumni relations. A graduate of Baltimore City’s Gilman School in 2006, Uqdah said he faced a bit of a rocky transition in going from public school to Gilman.

“The transition was a little rough for me, so the Summer Scholar’s program (a five week summer course that prepares new students for the transition to an independent school) holds a near and dear place to me, being able to speak with the students and let them know my experiences as a relatively recent high school graduate, and sharing those experiences so that they’re better equipped to handle the things we know they’ll have to handle.”

In identifying potential students to assist through the independent school admissions process, BEST focuses on more than just academic ability.

Crystal Lee, Jessica Suriano, and Kahlil Uqdah, members of BEST’s executive staff. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

“The schools themselves are looking for someone who’s going to enrich their community, and broaden the discussion in the classroom, so somebody with that special spark who is going to be an engaged and vibrant member of the community,” said Suriano.

At an Aug. 10 graduation for the Dale Carnegie Leadership Camp for Students, BEST was represented by four students who exemplified the sort of recruit who broadens the discussions and perspectives of a school’s student body.

“It’s definitely been a difficult experience having to go to a predominantly White school as far as the social aspect,” explained Jahi Jaramogi, a junior at the McDonogh School, of one of the challenges common to the BEST students at the Dale Carnegie graduation, one not of outright racism but of general ignorance about African Americans on the part of their affluent classmates.

BEST students have responded by getting active, pushing against stereotypes not simply with their presence and success at the independent schools, but through active organization and engagement, such as being involved in their schools’ Black Awareness Club.

“We just focus on spreading Black awareness throughout the school,” said Kayin Chambers, a senior at St. Paul’s School.  “We go on field trips—like this year we went on a field trip to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum—and just knowing more about your culture and getting in touch with who you really are.”

Dora Evans and Aissatou Boye, a senior and junior respectively at St. Paul’s School for Girls, are active in their school’s Black Awareness Club, with Evans currently serving as the president.

“We had a chapel during Black History Month where we talked about African-American women and power,” said Boye.

“We plan different fund-raising events,” said Evans of the club’s activities, “like we raised money to send to a family for Christmas, so we raised money for them and got them presents, and an assembly we did where we talked about Black stereotypes—we cleared that up—and just different things like that.”

ralejandro@afro.com

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO