REACH Prep Co-Founders Patsy Howard and Pat Young

By Michele Graham
Photographs by ChiChi Ubiña

Imagine you are a high potential 9-year old. Your future glistens with the prospect of college, a rewarding career and financial security. But standing in your way are barriers that seem, at times, insurmountable. For 4th graders from underserved communities in Fairfield and Westchester counties and the Bronx, REACH Prep stands as a unique beacon for a path forward. Started in 1994 by Patsy Howard, former head of Greenwich Academy and Pat Young, founder of the Stanwich School, along with Nancy Hoffmann, former head of admissions at Greenwich Academy, REACH Prep is celebrating 25 glorious years and the future has never looked brighter.

How’s this for reaching potential?
• Over 90% of REACH Prep students graduate from college.
• There are alumni in or graduated from business school, law school and graduate school.
• There are alumni pursuing doctoral studies and medical degrees.

What is REACH Prep and how does it generate these life-changing paths? The secret lies in a comprehensive 12-year program model that supports students at each stage of their academic and personal development.Once you see the thought and commitment that goes into the REACH Prep program, you see why this proven model works.

REACH Prep Junior Council Co-Chairs Sara Bartow and Andrew Jones

Off to a strong start

REACH Prep begins young with Prep Academy, which runs through the spring of a student’s 4th grade year, the summer after 4th and 5th grades and on Saturdays during the 5th grade academic year.

Students can only enter during 4th grade. “We believe 4th grade is so important because it allows for REACH Prep to prepare students before common independent school middle school entry points and because we want to build a foundation of trust, support and preparation for students and their families that is required for this type of multi-year commitment,” says Gina Lucas, REACH Prep CEO.

These 15 months of rigorous instruction prepare students to thrive in independent schools. Students are taught how to research, stay organized and communicate using technology. There’s a strong focus on writing, class participation, study and organizational
skills. Students also take a mindfulness course to help manage stress through their academic career. At the conclusion, students enter independent school in 6th grade with a firm foundation.

REACH Prep provides on-going support with workshops and individual guidance on social-emotional growth, identity, executive functioning, navigating new educational landscapes, college admissions and financial aid, transitioning to college, and early professional planning.

BUT REACH Prep is more than just what goes on in the classroom. Lucas notes, “To access to the highest level of academic instruction and support leading to college success and graduation, REACH Prep offers an extensive list of summer opportunities, test preparation, arts, swimming, outdoor leadership and community service experiences.”

Students aren’t alone in their journey. REACH Prep parents are very involved. And while there is no cost to families, all are expected to participate in programming.

Currently, there are 250 students enrolled in REACH Prep. Gracie Phillips, REACH Prep Director of Communications and Events, notes, “Our intentional size, scope and depth of programming allow the time and resources to offer individualized attention to each of our students and families.”

The value of a good match

REACH students matriculate into some of the finest independent schools in the area: Greenwich Academy, Brunswick School, Rye Country Day School, Greenwich Country Day School, Greens Farms Academy, Horace Mann, Hackley School, Riverdale Country School, King School, Sacred Heart Greenwich, The Masters School, St. Luke’s School, New Canaan Country School and Whitby, and more.

Part of the program’s success lies in carefully matching student to school. “Geography is an important factor as we match a REACH Prep student to their list of independent schools. Because we have students coming from Fairfield and Westchester counties and the Bronx, it is essential to account for transportation needs. In addition, we are matching schools with REACH Prep students based on the success of past REACH Prep graduates and we partner with schools that are able to meet the financial aid needs of our families. From the schools’ perspective, they are looking for the right fit for their school community,” says Lucas.

REACH Prep Junior Council Treasurer, Sam Wilson and Event Chair, Lauren O’Shaughnessy

In its comprehensive approach to provide all the tools and resources students need, REACH Prep aligns with a variety of outside organizations—from test prep and tutoring to mindfulness training to summer opportunity experiences. REACH is also a member of local, regional and national associations to help it stay current and connected on issues related to educational access and college success.

The right fit, rigorous curriculum, foundational supports—it all adds up. REACH Prep students have gone onto some of the nation’s most highly competitive colleges: Yale University, Bates College, Princeton University, Cornell University, Trinity College, American University, Smith College, MIT, Tufts University, Dartmouth College, Williams College, Rensselaer Polytechnic University, Middlebury College, and University of Pennsylvania, to name just a few.

A moving history, a bright future

When REACH Prep admitted its first cohort of students 25 years ago, it was all girls. Co-founder Young recalls, “We began REACH as a program to support promising low income African and Latino girls, who at the time were the most overlooked group, to transition successfully into independent schools. Initially it was challenging to recruit the students as the program was quite rigorous and meant little summer holiday.” A few years later, boys were included in the entering class. “I am so pleased to see our vision develop and to know that opportunities continue for so many students—both girls and boys.”

Howard adds, “REACH Prep was initially modeled on Prep for Prep, a successful program developed in NYC. When I moved to Greenwich Academy from the city, it was clear that there was an interest in increasing the diversity of our schools.  Thanks to excellent leadership over the past 25 years and the support of virtually all the independent schools in Westchester and Fairfield counties, our goal of increasing diversity and inclusion has been successful. A generation of talented students have contributed immeasurably to our schools and used the opportunities afforded them to become remarkable leaders in their fields and communities.”

The program continues to evolve and grow. “As REACH Prep’s first students grew older, they informed the organization to expand its services and offer a different set of specialized services at various stages of their educational journeys. We now have dedicated staff, programming, opportunities and guidance for every stage of REACH Prep’s 12-year continuum to ensure our students maximize their middle, high school and college experiences in and out of the classroom,” says Lucas.

Today, REACH Prep has an alumni community of 170 that just gets bigger and stronger. “We connect these REACH Prep and college graduates to each other and to the organization through ongoing communication and opportunities to volunteer or engage with us. We want them to balance starting their careers with also being connected to REACH Prep as young adults. Our newly created Director of College Success position works directly with college students to help them navigate that transition to the post college/early career experience,” says Phillips.

Something else that’s new: REACH Prep’s Junior Council. Launched in 2017, the Junior Council brings in a new generation to support the organization. In just a short time, the group has undertaken a number of initiatives. Members conduct mock interviews with students to help with their independent school interviews. Last November, the group prepared and sent care packages shortly before exam time to REACH Prep alumni at their college campuses, and then there’s a number of fundraising efforts.

REACH Prep Junior Council: Andrew Jones, Christine Arzeno, Sara Bartow, Roddy Tilt, Lauren O’ Shaughnessy, Sam Wilson, (Seated) Margo Cole and Christina Fox Tilt; Graci Djuranovic

Sara Bartow, co-chair says, “Given its relatively recent origins, the Junior Council has only begun its work and we look forward to additional impact at REACH Prep including parlaying our recent June event into an annual tradition, integrating more closely with the staff and board of the organization, and developing additional innovative measures to expand the awareness of REACH Prep. We find it remarkable how much REACH Prep has grown over the past 25 years and we are excited to be a part of its future.”

Fellow co-chair, Andrew Jones adds, “We continue to encourage new membership on the Council and welcome anyone inspired by REACH Prep’s cause to join us.”

While some organizations make growing their numbers their top goals, REACH Prep is choosing a different path for now. The organization is at a point where the focus is on deepening, enhancing, and expanding services to ensure that every student has exactly what they need during their 12-year journey.

It also wants to make sure that every child who has high-achieving potential is made aware of the program. “Getting the word out to all 4th graders that REACH Prep might be the right organization for them is the most pressing thing as we enter the admissions cycle this fall. We will be admitting our 27th cohort of students,” says Phillips.

As the program’s 25th anniversary gala on November 1st approaches, the organization welcomes sustaining operating funds. Lucas speaks on behalf of the staff, board, students, and alumni: “REACH Prep is grateful to have reached this significant 25-year milestone and we thank everyone from our earliest to our most recent days who believe in the potential of our remarkable students.”

For more information about REACH Prep, visit reachprep.org. Tickets to the 25th Anniversary Gala can be purchased online on the Events page.