Watch Beacon Academy's startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling women entrepreneurs who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. Video by Sue Williams.

There is no greater gift than opportunity.

That’s the thinking behind Boston’s Beacon Academy, which offers kids from low-income backgrounds an extra year of intense schooling between eighth and ninth grades, which in turn helps them win scholarships to competitive high schools. “We’re the only school of this kind in the country,” says Marsha Feinberg, who co-founded Beacon in 2004 with colleague Cindy Laba.

But Beacon isn’t just about academics. For those already familiar with the lexicon of privilege — and Beacon students are not — the program is something like a gap or “PG” (post-graduate) year, except it’s an interim year between an urban middle school and (ideally) an elite day or boarding school like Exeter or Andover. There’s etiquette classes, tennis lessons and field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts. The school gives disadvantaged students a window into the lives of kids who “prep,” who “summer” in places like Martha’s Vineyard, and who pursue “crew” rather than more common sports like basketball or baseball.

Laba doesn’t mince words when she talks about the 22 or so students who come from inner-city schools that are under-resourced and over-crowded, who are selected each year to attend Beacon. She and Feinberg are gearing up to welcome their next class on July 1. “I’m not politically correct at all,” she says. “There’s a lot of ‘deprogramming’ that needs to happen to get a public school kid ready for an independent school. My approach, and the faculty’s approach, with the kids is: ‘You’ve got to get ready to go to school with a bunch of really wealthy white kids. And we’re gonna get you ready.’”

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Starting Up

Feinberg and Laba met about 20 years ago, while both were working for City Year, an educational nonprofit that helps students stay on track to graduate from high school. As business partners, the two are an odd couple — Laba grew up on a small farm, delivering eggs to houses in Boston, while Feinberg was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of parents active in the arts and activism. Laba studied social work at Salem State; Feinberg went to business school at Columbia University. Yet they bonded over a shared passion for improving the lives of young people.

As friends, Laba would rib Feinberg about sending her kids to private school. “I used to tease Marsha and say her kids were so precious that they needed to be around kids that didn’t live in the bubble.” That led to a kernel of an idea — why not start a one-year school that would prepare city kids for scholarships to elite schools, in such a way that they wouldn’t be seen as “scholarship kids” but rather legitimate classmates? Feinberg, who knew that private schools were always eager to amp up diversity, liked the idea but wanted outside input.

They brought the idea to educator Wanda Holland Greene, then an administrator at the private Park School in Boston, who Laba considered “the most impressive educator I’d ever met.” Greene, who is African-American, grew up in New York City and was bussed to an integrated school in a racially segregated neighborhood. As they told her about the concept, “she just sat there in this rocking chair, not moving her face,” Laba recalls. They got up to leave. “She literally leapt out of her chair and said, ‘This is the greatest idea I ever heard. I was one of those kids. I’ll do anything to help you guys.’”

With that encouragement, they began asking others for help. Feinberg did the math and figured they’d need at least $500,000 to get the school started. “We set up a structure that people would invest $25,000 to help support one student,” Feinberg says. “I did the first scholarship and went to 10 friends, and each wanted to fund a scholarship.” Then a philanthropist offered to donate $75,000. Feinberg initially declined the large sum, as she thought it might de-incentivize other donors. So “he said, ‘I’ll give you 25,000 for 3 years [in a row] if you go back to 3 people and get them to do the same,’” Feinberg recalls. That worked. Then, a number of teams of donors each gave $25,000 scholarships.

In the end, “we had 69 donors that collectively gave to start Beacon,” Feinberg says. “And many still give to Beacon.” Today, the school has an endowment of over $5 million, which it draws from to support its $1.9 million annual budget. Students attend for nearly free; families are charged a greatly reduced fee and some students do work-study so that they have “skin in the game,” Feinberg says.

Prepping For Prep

Now in its 15th year, Beacon boasts impressive stats — including a 100-percent graduation rate, meaning 100 percent of its students have gone on to graduate from high school. About 90 percent ultimately attend college, an impressive list that includes Ivy League schools like Princeton and Dartmouth and state colleges like the University of Massachusetts.

To save on costs, the school has always used classrooms at Temple Israel, where Feinberg is a congregant. A staff of 12, including English and math teachers, work closely with the students. “Academically, the kids come to us at least two years behind, [sometimes] three or four years behind,” Laba says, and need to work quickly and intensely to catch up to their counterparts at suburban or independent schools.

And perhaps most importantly, nearly every Beacon student secures enough financial aid to attend college-preparatory schools — prestigious institutions, mostly in the Northeast, that have long been the domain of wealthy white families. Nearly all of Beacon’s 269 graduates are students of color from disadvantaged financial situations. “We don’t guarantee anything, but our track record speaks for itself,” Laba says. “If we are doing our job well and preparing, they are going to earn a scholarship.”

Laba and Feinberg work closely with administrators at urban schools to identify potential Beacon students. Each year, they see as many as 150 students — generally, 13- or 14-year-olds who seem capable of Beacon’s academic rigor and who possess a willingness to parachute into a different world. The list is whittled down to 30. “It’s brutal,” Laba says, particularly when they have to decide against, say, a “charming, wonderful” kid whose reading skills are so poor that he can’t catch up, even with Beacon’s help.

The Beacon school year starts July 1 with a 5-week summer session, featuring all-day English and math classes followed by hours of homework. It’s “a good test for a child about what their dedication is going to be,” Feinberg says. Generally, a few students drop out. Those who make it through the first four weeks are rewarded with a fifth week on Martha’s Vineyard, where they “stay with wealthy families and get to see the Vineyard from that perspective,” Feinberg says. “They’re living the life.”

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Sending Beacons Out Into the World

The two acknowledge some criticism of Beacon’s approach  — in particular, the notion that black or brown students are in effect leaving their cultural backgrounds behind to enter a world of white elitism. Neither Laba or Feinberg see it that way. “One of the questions that we get sometimes is, “Are we forcing it?’” Laba says. “And I think my answer to families is always, “Don’t you want your kids to have options?”

She adds that Beacon aims to help students not just get in but fit in. Exposing children from tough backgrounds to wealthy pursuits such as country club dinners or ski trips reduces awkwardness, both founders say. It allows students to have shared experiences with the mostly white students who attend the best high schools. “They’re constantly navigating this elite world with grace and humility and vulnerability — and hopefully power and confidence,” Laba says.

In the printed program for this year’s graduation, which features students’ first-person memories, members of the Beacon class of 2019 often described the school as a place of discovery. “Beacon took me from 1 to 100 in a matter of a year,” says Krystian Reese, who will be attending Roxbury Latin School in the fall. “Beacon opened my eyes to a whole new group of people and a whole new type of closeness and community that I had never expected.”

The founders say “community” is a word they want associated with Beacon. After each class graduates, Laba and Feinberg continue to work with alums — they call them “Beacons” — to help them adjust to independent schools. The academy hosts events throughout the year, including a holiday party, and many alums attend. “They feel like they’re home again,” Feinberg says.

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Read Full Transcript

Cindy: I'm not politically correct at all. And my approach and the faculty's approach with the kids is, you've got to get ready to go to school with a bunch of really wealthy white kids. You'll have to work harder than you've ever worked. You'll cry. Your family will cry. But it'll be worth it in the end. We'll change your life.

Marsha: We help kids so that they can really end up changing their economic and social trajectory in a way that allows them to break out of this incredible trap of poverty.

TEXT: Cindy Laba & Marsha Feinberg – Co-Founders, Beacon Academy, Boston, MA

Cindy: Beacon Academy is an extra year of school between eighth and ninth grades designed to get really smart, talented, hardworking, good kids into some of the best high schools in the country.

TEXT: Cindy grew up on a small farm near Boston.

Cindy: My grandfather and grandmother and my father all delivered eggs house to house in Boston, and I used to have to go with them when I was a kid. That was my job.

TEXT: Marsha grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents worked in the film industry. 

Marsha: They were amazing activists. They went and marched with Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama. They hosted innumerable events for the ACLU. So I kind of always thought that I should continue that work in some way.

TEXT: Cindy and Marsha met in 1992 while working at City Year in Boston, an organization that tutors inner city school students. 

Cindy: At City Year, I think I had probably nine or ten different jobs, full titles in my first year there.

Marsha: Any time anyone needed to get something done right they'd say, “Cindy, you're in charge of this now.” I had children at the time. I worked there was a consultant.

TEXT: In 2003 Cindy took a job running a charter school in Boston.

Cindy: I’d seen where Marsha's kids went to school, these really beautiful, expensive independent schools and this was nothing like that. Only five of 73 freshmen passed all their classes first quarter of freshman year.

Marsha: We were looking at kids who went to Boston public schools getting As and Bs in English, but when they got to these independent schools, the children would underperform. And it was horrible for them, horrible for the school, and they'd oftentimes leave.

Cindy: So I had this idea that if we could do a school that was a one year school, we'd get city kids into schools with Marsha's kids, and they would be academically super prepared. 

TEXT: Cindy and Marsha set up Beacon Academy in 2004. 

TEXT: Marsha managed the fundraising so all students can receive financial aid.

TEXT: Cindy worked with academics to build the curriculum.

TEXT: In the summer of 2005, the first students arrived.

Cindy: Academically, we have to make up at least three years almost with every single kid. At least in English and Math, those are the two subjects we focus on the most. If they work hard enough, they can do it. And their test scores go up. I think every kid this year at least doubled. Some tripled. Some quadrupled.

SOT: Mine should go after yours because it says these numbers reveal systemic inequality in the compensation of women.

TEXT: Classes are small with only 11 pupils.

Cindy: We get super involved with the families. We really need to know what’s going on. We need to know how hard it is. We need to know if you have food or if you go home and you have to babysit. What is getting in the way of you performing at your absolute best?

TEXT: Every student does track and swimming. 

TEXT: They learn to row and play tennis. 

TEXT: And they have a steady stream of cultural activities.

TEXT: Beacon’s annual budget is $18 million. 80% comes from individual donors.

Cindy: When we started Beacon we thought that we just needed the kids for one year. We'd get them placed in these great schools and they'd be all set. Immediately, we started to get the calls from kids saying, “I don't know what's going on here.”

TEXT: Staff now stay in close touch with the students through high school and college.

TEXT: They help them win scholarships and offer social and emotional support.

Cindy: Beacon kids have to continually navigate a very complex environment. One of the questions that they get is: Are we forcing it? Are we putting these kids into worlds that their families really don't want them in?

Marsha: We want them to recognize that their children are able to operate in a number of different worlds because they're confident and they're competent.

Cindy: I think my answer to families is always, “Don't you want your kids to have options?” We’re not saying to the kids, “You’re going to these schools so you can get rich.” We're telling you to go to school to get educated, because you're smart. And then you have options.