Lighting the Way: Ankur Arya '12 is Giving Students the Tools They Need for Success
The possibilities that the Haverford alumnus and current teacher found in his own life help him show his inner-city students how to aim high.
Stacks of paper form a solid border around Ankur Arya’s desk at Thomas A. Edison Charter School in Wilmington, Del. The tests, quizzes, and worksheets are filled with equations and bear the handwritten names of the seventh- and eighth-graders who submitted them. To them, he is Mr. Arya, their teacher, and above his classroom door hangs something he put there to inspire them: a Haverford College banner.
The 2012 Haverford grad first came to Edison when he joined Teach for America, and after his two-year TFA commitment ended he stayed on. Edison is in a section of Wilmington plagued by crime, poverty, and high unemployment. That’s exactly why Arya wanted to teach there. And why he wanted to do more.
In 2013, he established Leading Youth Through Empowerment (LYTE), an after-school and summer program designed to help eighth-graders earn acceptance to Delaware’s top public and private high schools. “I want students to realize that attending Delaware’s great high schools is a possibility for them,” Arya says. “Kids know what those schools are. They just don’t know the process for getting into them.”
Arya designed LYTE to lead students through that process. Twice a week for 90 minutes, students are prepped for admissions tests and essays and get help with financial-aid forms. LYTE is a free program. Grants and private donations pay for the students’ materials and application fees. But the students do have to apply to join. That’s to confirm their commitment—and that of their parents— to stick with the program through completion.
In LYTE’s first two years, every one of its 23 scholars got into top private institutions such as Tower Hill, Wilmington Friends, Padua Academy, and the Tatnall School; as well as highly ranked public high schools such as Mount Pleasant and the Charter School of Wilmington.
LYTE is such a success that, for the current academic year, the program has expanded to include students from two other inner-city Wilmington charter schools.
His inspiration for starting this ambitious program? His own life.
Arya attended Beverly Hills Middle School, in Upper Darby, Pa., where more than 75 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. Whereas Edison is a high-performing charter school with a focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), Beverly Hills students scored well below average on state tests for math, science, and reading.
Arya also learned firsthand about some of the challenges of being part of a cultural minority at Beverly Hills, where more than 65 percent of his classmates were black. Arya is a first-generation American; his parents and grandparents came here from India to find better opportunities. Arya’s father runs a printing shop in Upper Darby; his mother recently received her doctorate in nursing.
Arya followed his parents’ example, finding ways to improve his own life. While attending middle school, he researched the best high schools in the region. With help from his teachers and the support of his family, he did the same thing he now helps LYTE scholars do. He studied for entrance exams, wrote essays, and applied for financial aid. It worked. The Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pa., accepted him into the Class of 2008.
But once there, Arya experienced a new set of challenges. “I attended Episcopal on a great deal of financial aid, and that is not the case with most of the school’s students,” he says. “Not only was there a big social transition, but there was a significant disparity in the education I’d received to that point. A lot of kids had gone to Episcopal from a much younger age. I was joining as a ninth-grader, and I immediately understood that I wasn’t where the other kids were academically. Throughout my childhood, I believed—or assumed—that I was getting a great education. Once I got to Episcopal, I realized what I’d been missing.”
Overcoming the educational deficit didn’t take long. Arya excelled at Episcopal, partly because of the individualized attention he received from teachers. He wanted the same in a college. Part of Haverford’s allure for him, he says, was its small size. “I’d done well in the smaller classes at Episcopal, and I wanted to retain that.”
At Haverford, classes in education and political science gave him a new perspective on his own academic life. “What I studied fused race and politics and how they impact the country’s educational system, especially that of inner-city schools. It was a powerful message for me.”
He majored in political science and minored in education, earning his teaching certificate through Haverford and Bryn Mawr’s collaborative Bi-Co Education Program. His senior thesis looked at the politics of memory and the resulting influence on academics. “I argued that the U.S. has a more Nietzschean mindset—meaning that people remember only things that are helpful and show character— and that is reflected in textbooks,” he says. “For example, we view Brown v. Board of Education as a success story, but schools are still very segregated, especially in inner cities.”
That’s why Arya decided he wanted to do his student teaching at Beverly Hills Middle School. It took some doing. “Haverford hadn’t sent student teachers there in the past, but the administration made all the arrangements,” Arya says. “For that, I’m grateful. It was really important for me to go back to Beverly Hills with the knowledge that I’d gained at Haverford.”
It’s a straight line from there to Arya’s work at Edison, where the students clearly adore him.
“I have friends who go to other schools where the teachers are good, but they are just doing a job,” says eighth-grader Shanea Higgin. “Mr. Arya takes everything to a higher level. If you solve a math problem successfully, he’ll give you three more ways to do it. That’s because he wants us to be challenged. Him thinking we are up to that challenge makes us believe that we are.”
Says student Destiny Smith: “Some people think that, because we go to school in Wilmington, we are a certain kind of student. We are certain kinds of students—very hard- working. We love Mr. Arya because he doesn’t judge us by anything except the work we do in his classroom.”
With LYTE’s help, Smith and Higgin will apply to Tower Hill, Padua, and Ursuline, three of the best high schools in Wilmington. Elijah Jones is aiming for the Tatnall School. “I don’t want to stop the flow of how I learn by going to a school that doesn’t have the same atmosphere as Thomas Edison,” he says.
Andrew Thompson wants to enroll at Wilmington Friends. Is he worried about the academic challenges he’ll face? Thompson throws his head back and laughs. “You don’t understand kids like us,” he says, gesturing to his three friends. “We’re already overcoming the odds every single day. Schools like Thomas Edison and teachers like Mr. Arya turn us into warriors so that we can succeed anywhere in any circumstances. When we grow up and get into the real world, there’ll be no stopping us.”