They’re the terrible trio in many of our neighborhood schools: lack of funds and resources, overcrowding and teachers who only teach for the tests. Any one of them could leave your child unprepared to compete in higher learning settings, and they don’t discriminate, adversely affecting not only struggling students but also advanced ones who aren’t stimulated by the curriculum. But don’t lose faith. “No matter where we live, each of us can forge strong relationships to create a web of support that ensures our children’s success,” says Felicia DeHaney, Ph.D., president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute.

Studies show that teens who participate in after-school programs are three times less likely to skip class, use drugs or consume alcohol. ESSENCE consulted some of the top minds in education to pin-point eight organizations committed to fostering academic excellence in our kids. Look for us to bring you more resources in the coming months.

Black students have made significant gains in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading scores since 2009. Is your child making the same strides? Here’s a road map to help chart their progress, complete with tips for that extra boost.

AGES 0-4
As your child develops sensory and motor skills, start a reading routine and encourage exploration. At age 2, enroll him or her in day care. “This is an age when they are ready to learn more,” says Bisa Batten Lewis, Ed.D., founder of Ideal Early Learning educational consulting service. “Look into the quality of early learning programs. Black parents can’t afford to put their children into programs that just babysit.”

If you’re a stay-at-home mom, spend time engaging in positive verbal exchanges and build your child’s vocabulary by singing nursery rhymes. By their fourth birthday, children should understand multiple-step instructions like washing their hands. Team up with like-minded parents to schedule playdates at home or in the park to foster your children’s social skills.

AGES 5-11
In addition to reciting the alphabet and numbers one through 20, young children should be able to sort items by size and shape by the time they turn 5. Soon thereafter, children should have a grasp of how to add and subtract. By the time students complete fourth grade; which is also their first introduction to heavy standardized testing; they should know how to multiply, divide and read short, novels on their own. For an at-home learning experience, ask your child to solve math problems using the change from your wallet, says Chip Wood, author of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom (Northeast Foundation for Children) and cofounder of the Responsive Classroom.

Wood and Lewis both agree that including your child in household tasks, like making grocery lists and recording recipes, are good supplemental learning activities. “Something as simple as reading and writing ingredients can be very helpful,” says Lewis. Also schedule meetings with teachers at the beginning of every school year to discuss academic expectations.

AGES 12-14
The teenage years mean a shift in attitude. With the onset of puberty and increased peer pressure, students and likely to lean on their friends more, which can create tension at home. “This is where parents may see a lot of oppositional behavior,” says Wood. “Children are very unpredictable during this time, so their grades might be unpredictable.” Even if you feel your child is pulling away, remain involved, says Ernest Black, Ed.D., a CalStateTEACH faculty adviser and founder of EBlack Education Consultants. “Go to parent conferences, e-mail teachers, find out about homework assignments and due dates, and be proactive.”

Remember there will be an increase in assignments in junior high school, so help your children prepare for the ramped-up expectations. “This is a time when parents need to get a clear sense of how students are progressing,” says Wood. “Your son or daughter may feel overwhelmed with the amount of homework and will need help with organizing and planning their time.”

AGES 15-18
Start preparing application materials at the beginning of eighth grade if your child is eyeing a specific high school, as deadlines are usually right after the New Year. Once your children start high school, encourage them to take more rigorous courses in math, science and the humanities. “Students should challenge themselves,” says Adam Smith, Special assistant to the Office of the Provost/Academic Affairs at the University of Akron and co-owner of CollegeMatters.

“If they want to be an engineer or go into medicine, the ability to do math and understand science is so powerful.” College-bound teens should also participate in extracurricular activities to hone leadership skills, and during their junior year they should take the SAT or ACT twice and go on campus tours. Submit college applications before the end of October of their senior year to increase their chances of getting scholarships and admission into academic support programs that provide financial assistance. Smith also suggests looking for free or low-cost community college classes that give dual credit—high school and college—in your area, which will give your teen a leg up. “The more kids are in a college classroom, the more they can see themselves on a college campus,” says Smith.

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