Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Programs, Inc. will launch the EXCEL Program—an initiative designed to put middle school students on a path to college—at the Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School later this month.

Through the EXCEL Program, students will be matched with College Coaches — volunteers from Yale and Hill Regional Career High School — who will teach them what they need to do in high school to be ready for college. To launch the program, the guidance counselor at Barnard will identify five to six talented middle school students who would benefit most from participating in the program. While the pilot was offered to all middle schools within the New Haven public school district, Barnard was the only school to accept the offer.

“What we’re looking to do is begin the process of college prep and the knowledge of college prep before the students get to high school,” said Regina Martin, Associate Director of Higher Heights.

In addition to scheduling weekly meetings for the students and their mentors, the EXCEL Program will use Naviance — an electronic tool used by New Haven Public Schools to monitor students’ performance in class — to track the middle schoolers’ progress in the pilot program, said Travis LaHue, AmeriCorps Vista Fellow at Higher Heights.

Throughout the school year, the College Coaches are expected to maintain a mentor-mentee relationship with their middle school students while tracking their progress and preparing them for the rigors of high school, said Martin. They will give advice on which classes to take, how to maintain a certain grade point average and how to prepare for future career opportunities.

“Even though they are seventh and eighth graders, it’s not too early to start talking to them and showing them what their options are,” Martin said.

Another goal of the program, which is still in its infancy, is training counselors in middle schools to implement a college readiness program — rather than leaving such efforts to high school counselors, said Chaka Felder-McEntire, founder and executive director of Higher Heights.

“Right now, the primary goal for this pilot is to direct partnership with the school counselors and to help them with the implementation of their counseling program,” Felder-McEntire said.

Higher Heights already operates a high school program called College Access, which provides tutoring, scholarship planning and test preparation services. Excel was designed as a bridge into this program, Martin said.

Higher Heights recruits Yale students through Dwight Hall, which also supports the organization by serving as a facilitator for community collaboration and transferring resources, said Sarah Masotta, AmeriCorps VISTA Fellow for Dwight Hall. Dwight Hall has joined Partnering to Advance Visions in Education (PAVE), a collaborative of five non-profit organizations and New Haven Public Schools that aims to improve educational opportunities in New Haven.

Although the EXCEL Program is only debuting in one middle school, plans for expansion are contingent upon its success during this first year at Barnard, LaHue said.

“In the long term we would like to expand, but for right now we’re just going to keep [EXCEL] at Barnard as our pilot and see how it goes,” LaHue said.

Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Program was founded in 2004.