In the fall of 2014, Daeja Gonzalez was sitting in her 8th grade classroom at Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington wondering about her future and whether she might have the qualities to land a spot at an academically rigorous high school. Neither of her parents attended college. And she assumed her high school options would be limited.
But Thomas Edison math teacher Ankur Arya saw something special in Gonzalez and decided he would take steps to help her navigate a successful academic path. “I knew Daeja had such tremendous abilities, and I thought I could help,” he said.
He invited Gonzalez to participate in a new after-school enrichment program he had recently started to help give a leg up to middle schoolers from low-income backgrounds with drive and a desire to put in extra work. The goal was to better prepare those students to meet the qualifications for admission to top-performing Delaware high schools.
Gonzalez was one of the first students to become a part of a program that Arya eventually founded – Leading Youth Through Empowerment (LYTE Delaware), now an official nonprofit 501-C3 organization. And she stuck with Arya as he expanded capacity, recruited more tutors and added programming – including college counseling – for high schoolers.
Last month Gonzalez graduated from Tower Hill School, ranked as one of the best private day schools in the country, and she is proud to embark on the next chapter of her life at Bryn Mawr College – her first choice – in the fall. She was one of ten local graduating seniors who participated in a special recognition ceremony and summer scholar showcase event last week at Thomas Edison School, and only one of a handful of students asked to give remarks.
As the program was just in its infancy, Arya offered extra help math sessions during lunch at Thomas Edison, and he says Gonzalez was always the first to volunteer to help.
“Her taking that time out from lunch speaks volumes about what type of person she is. She would help me reteach lessons and some of the core concepts to groups of students who were struggling. I thought she was phenomenal. She was excellent and patient in working with other students.”
Gonzalez says her role as instructor and the tutoring she sought for herself after school helped prepare her for the academic challenges ahead. “I started at LYTE by tutoring other kids. When it was time to apply for high school, the other members and I were coming (to see LYTE counselors) almost every day after class, prepping and studying,” Gonzalez said.
While partaking in the application-based program, Gonzalez with the support from Arya and other faculty members, worked tirelessly after school and partook in summer programs to prepare for acceptance exams.
“The transition to Tower Hill was very easy for me. I really enjoyed my time there – in all aspects: socially and academically. I’m so grateful to Ankur and the LYTE program for helping me get there,” she said.
Gonzales thrived at Tower Hill, earning one of the highest GPA’s in her graduating class. Additionally, she was an instrumental founder of the school’s first-ever competitive robotics team. During her four years there, she sought weekly help from LYTE instructors.
“I came to LYTE every Tuesday. Ankur had high school graduates come and help tutor us for the SAT and ACT college exams. This work completely changed my score for the better,” she said.
Arya went into teaching and eventually founded LYTE after being inspired by his own academic path. While attending Beverly Hills Middle School, in Upper Darby, PA., Arya was “academically bored” but unable to attend private school due to their high-cost.
With help from his teachers, Arya researched the best schools in his area, applied for numerous financial aid packages and eventually found himself at The Episcopal Academy in Newton Square, Pa.
“Throughout my childhood, I believed – or assumed – that I was getting a great education. Once I got to the Episcopal, I realized what I’d been missing,” he said. He went on to earn his college degree from Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
The LYTE program was so successful in its first two years that many one of its 23 participants were admitted into top Delaware high school programs. LYTE is a free program that is run from private donations and grants from sponsors in the Wilmington area. Students apply to join and must commit to full completion of the program.
“I want students to realize that attending Delaware’s great high schools is a possibility for them,” Arya said. “Kids know what those schools are. They just don’t know the process for getting into them.”
The July 11 graduation celebration concluded with presentations from LYTE summer scholars who shared results of in-depth research projects. Topics ranged from racial inequality to the harmful effects of pollution on our planet.
Over 170 students now participate in the LYTE program from the summer after their 8th grade through 12th grade. Arya says the success of his after school and summer programs are part of his goal of giving kids the space to flourish “so they are pushing themselves to reach their capacity as learners.”
Photos supplied by 4YouthProductions.org