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Meet The Disruptor: Ivy Advantage Academy & 12+

The intertwined for-profit and non-profit college prep companies bridge the gap between privilege and poverty

The intertwined for-profit and non-profit college prep companies bridge the gap between privilege and poverty

When Abraham Kwon and his three co-founders launched 12+, a nonprofit college prep program, in 2010, their mission seemed simple enough: Creating a “college going culture” in Philadelphia high schools by helping underserved students prepare for and attend college.

They launched with a staff of three in Kensington Health Sciences Academy. By last year, the organization had a staff of 15, and were providing 1,500 9th to 12th graders with free SAT and ACT test prep services, college readiness counseling, wrap-around services, workshops, and mentoring.

In 2013, it was clear to the executive team—all Penn alums—that they were having success with their students. What was less clear—as with other nonprofits—was how they were going to continue funding their work at 12+, whose $350,000 to $400,000 annual budget mostly came from foundations and private donations.

So the partners, already disruptors in the mostly elite field of college prep, started thinking about another disruptor, in another field: Tom’s Shoes, with its one-for-one business model that sends a pair of shoes to a person in need across the globe for every pair it sells.

Already, recent college graduates who become 12+ fellows may also apply for part-time tutoring positions at Ivy. Soon, they plan to offer 12+ students part-time administrative jobs at Ivy, and Ivy students the chance to volunteer in the city, helping to tutor their peers and learning how they can use their privilege to make a positive impact in the world.

“We thought, What if we could somehow use the skills and expertise we have as Ivy league graduates, as people who have worked in education, to start a for-profit company similar to a KAPLAN or Princeton Review and charge for our services,” says Albert Pak, former COO of 12+. “Then we could use a portion of those proceeds for 12+ and other education initiatives in the city.”

Now the founders run two different, but intertwined, college prep companies: 12+ and Ivy Advantage Academy, a private start-up in Elkins Park that they bought in 2013, revamped and renamed. Ivy is a “one stop shop for the tutoring and test-prep needs” of students in the greater Philadelphia area. It offers private tutoring sessions, seasonal SAT and ACT prep, and summer middle school enrichment classes, led by recent Ivy League graduates, to 60 to 95 students per year. This year alone Ivy students have received admissions to Princeton, Penn, Georgetown and the US Naval Academy.

Ivy’s clientele tend to be from affluent Korean-American families from high-quality suburban schools, the ones who start out ahead and stay ahead because of the sorts of enrichment that Ivy provides. A full-length session—which includes 72 hours of class instruction and 3 full length practice test—runs from $1500 to $1800; private tutoring pricing varies. On average this brings in $110k per year for Ivy.

For the last three years, Ivy has provided $35,000 of that revenue to 12+ for its free programming at Hill-Freedman World Academy, where the first class of seniors will start in the fall; Kensington Health, where 65 percent of college-eligible seniors who took the SATs raised their scores by an average of 155 points, and 78 percent were accepted into a two- or four-year college; and Fishtown’s Penn Treaty, where 100 percent showed improvement, and 83 percent got into college. (12+ helped the remainder of the students get positions in Job Corps or other job training programs.) Students at these schools are predominantly black and Latino, and have faced significant challenges to accessing quality education. They require additional services such as life-skills training and job opportunities.

Eventually, says Pak, who co-owns Ivy, the goal is for Ivy to funnel $100,000 a year to 12+, providing a base, which when added to the grants 12+ already receives, would securely sustain the non-profit. But having two different entities, with two very different populations, has also created a separate opportunity that Pak says they hope to grow: A pipeline linking students and teachers to each other, to jobs and to volunteer opportunities.

Already, recent college graduates who become 12+ fellows may also apply for part-time tutoring positions at Ivy. Soon, they plan to offer 12+ students part-time administrative jobs at Ivy, and Ivy students the chance to volunteer in the city, helping to tutor their peers and learning how they can use their privilege to make a positive impact in the world.

“If you look at our students at Ivy and 12+ the difference is sometimes jarring, and that is because of the circumstances that they were born in and their own personal experiences,” says Ester Park, a 12+ program manager at Hill Freedman and Education Director at Ivy Advantage. “We’re trying to bridge that gap where we get [students] to think more open mindedly about how there are different people than themselves, but that we can work together to serve our communities.”

The partners, already disruptors in the mostly elite field of college prep, started thinking about another disruptor, in another field: Tom’s Shoes, with its one-for-one business model that sends a pair of shoes to a person in need across the globe for every pair it sells.

Even without Ivy’s philanthropic alter-ego, the company offered a new take on the standard test prep program. The teachers, like Park, are all young college graduates, who spend time connecting with their students, beyond the vocabulary and algebra on the page. This means smaller class sizes of no more than 10; and a program that aims to instill excellence and goodness in their clientele. “Our teachers meet students where they are,” says Pak. “They aren’t hired just to come in, teach, and leave. There’s a lot of money to be made, yes, but there’s also a lot of good that can be done through [test prep centers].”

This goes back to Kwon’s original inspiration for 12+, when it was called “One Little Did.” A Penn student at the time, Kwon was volunteering with the debate team at West Philadelphia High School where, he told the Inquirer, the students “were asking about things that I thought everybody knew, things we take for granted.” Questions like: “What are the SATs?” “Do I have to take them to go to college?” and  “How do you apply to college?”

While they’ve helped many students answer those questions since then, Pak admits that it’s easy for staff to get lost in the systemic problems of poverty, poor schools and low expectations. He reports having days—like so many other positive social change agents, administrators and educators in Philadelphia—when he wonders, “Are we making a difference?”

His team makes sure to remind one another that what they’ve already achieved is “noteworthy, and it’s only going to go up from here.”

Right now going up from here means graduating the first 12+ senior class at their newest school partner, Hill Freedman World Academy, and expanding the alumni program, Ascend, in order to ensure as many students as possible transition successfully to college the first fall after graduation and stay on track. They’re still considering expansion into a fourth school depending on…you guessed it: funding.  

Ultimately, Pak’s hope is that the work being done at Ivy Advantage and 12+ will be a positive message, specifically to college students who are coming up behind them: “Many of them are graduating with an incredible opportunity to make a difference in whatever community they are [a part of]. And there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Albert Pak runs 12+; he is co-owner of Ivy. 

Photo header: Ivy Advantage co-owner Raymond John and CEO Frank Wang. (Photo by Patrick Clark)

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