Stacks of paper form a solid border around Ankur Arya’s desk. The tests, quizzes and worksheets are filled with equations and bear the handwritten names of the various students who submitted them. To these kids, he’s Mr. Arya.
Upon finishing school at Haverford College in 2012, Arya joined Teach for America for a two-year commitment. But something compelled him to stay at Thomas A. Edison Charter School in Wilmington, so he stuck around.
Edison is in a section of Wilmington plagued by crime, poverty and high unemployment rates—typical problems that have affected inner cities for decades and eroded their public schools. Expectations for kids there are low. But teachers like Arya are manufacturing new ones.
In 2013, Arya established Leading Youth Through Empowerment, 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 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 usher students through that process. Twice a week for 90 minutes, participants are prepped for admissions tests, admissions essays, and help with financial-aid forms. It’s a free program. Grants and private donations pay for the students’ materials and application fees. But they do have to apply to join. That’s to confirm their commitment—and that of their parents—to see the program to its completion.
In LYTE’s first two years, each of its 23 scholars got into prestigious private high schools in Wilmington, including Tatnall, Tower Hill, Wilmington Friends, Padua Academy and Ursuline Academy. The students then become mentors to younger kids seeking to follow them.
LYTE is such a success that, for the current academic year, the program has expanded to include students from three other Wilmington charter schools that serve low-income or minority students: Kuumba Academy, Prestige Academy and EastSide. The 18 students in the program walk or take a bus to Edison.
Arya attended Upper Darby’s Beverly Hills Middle School, where more than 75 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. While Edison is a high-performing, STEAM-powered charter school, Beverly Hills students scored well below average on state tests for math,
science and reading.
Desk Work: Haverford College grad Ankur Arya is helping inner-city students with a program of his own making//Photos by Tessa Marie Images.
Ankur Arya was part of a cultural minority at Beverly Hills. More than 65 percent of his classmates were black. Arya’s parents and grandparents came here from India to find better opportunities. His dad runs a printing shop in Upper Darby; his mom recently received her doctorate in nursing.
Arya has followed his parents in finding ways to improve his own life. While attending Beverly Hills, he researched the best high schools in the region. His grades were excellent, and his teachers thought he should reach higher and farther than Upper Darby High School. With help from them and the support of his family, Arya did the same thing he now helps LYTE scholars do. He studied for entrance exams, wrote essays, and applied for financial aid.
Accepted to Episcopal Academy’s Class of 2008, Arya experienced a new set of challenges. “I attended EA on a great deal of financial aid and scholarships, and that’s 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.”
Overcoming the educational deficit didn’t take long. Arya excelled at EA and, later, at Haverford College. Throughout childhood, he assumed he was getting a great education. “Once I got to Episcopal, I realized what I’d been missing,” he says.
In addition to helping LYTE students get into great high schools, Arya is preparing them for the rigorous academic atmosphere he encountered. He also coaches them through the socio-economic differences they’re likely to find.
“For me, it was important to teach in a place like my middle school, because it was an experience I underwent,” he says. “I was just like these kids.”
And the kids really seem to adore Arya. “I have friends who go to other schools where the teachers are good, but they’re just doing a job,” says eighth-grade LYTE scholar 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 we are.”
Says student Destiny Smith: “Some people think that, because we go to school in Wilmington, we’re a certain kind of student. We’re certain kinds of students—very hardworking. 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 Tatnall. “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. “I don’t want to go to a school that doesn’t fit me academically, and then I just collapse.”
Andrew Thompson wants to enroll at Wilmington Friends. Is he worried? Thompson 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 we can succeed anywhere in any circumstances. When we grow up and get into the real world, there will be no stopping us.”