As the new year brings about a great deal of reflection, what better moment to touch base with family, friends, and supporters of The Eagle Academy Foundation (EAF). I can’t even begin to describe how it feels to address you as the President & CEO of EAF. I’d like to begin by saying THANK YOU. EAF’s success would not be possible without the support of our stakeholder groups. Creating change and destroying systemic barriers is never easy; from the Board, to students, to administrators, to parents and beyond, your dedication is what inspires me. Each of you has dedicated time, energy, and resources over the last 18 years to see the vision grow from 100 students in 2004 to a fully functioning network serving over 4,000 young men, including current students and alumni.
Here’s what draws me to this work. I grew up in a single-parent household in NYC’s notorious Polo Ground Projects in the 80s and 90s, the heart of our city’s “crack era”. Navigating those circumstances was not easy for me; I had to deal with losing friends to the streets, the omnipresent reality of danger potentially lurking around the corner, and navigating my pivotal adolescent years, without a father figure. My history is what draws me to today’s challenging, yet rewarding work—helping young men of color fulfill their immense potential. I see so much of myself in the students across the Eagle Academy network of schools. I am one of them. I want every one of our students to know that they can accomplish great success in life and their current circumstances are simply a bridge to their future. Growing up in the inner–city can sometimes feel like your options are low, and the risk of street temptation is high. I was one of the lucky ones who found my footing, made it, and now am honored to give back to the very demographic of young men that are far too often ignored, misunderstood, and tracked into the system. Eagle Academy students are not simply young men that we assist– no, these are my brothers that I am vehemently dedicated to helping succeed in life. this cycle of rinse and repeat must end, and my vision for EAF will play a pivotal role in moving forward.
These stories tell of our work, and champion the success of Eagle Academy students and alumni: We are proud of the class of 2022’s 247 students with 70 percent going to college and over 25 percent heading into the workforce. We’re featuring a very special student, Jamaal Trotman, alumnus of the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Ocean Hill’s second graduating class, and an informative conversation with young men who participated in a retreat at billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith’s home.
The new calendar year coincides with a new chapter in the story of Eagle Academy Foundation, and a chance to make more impact. A great deal of change is happening in the postsecondary space that isn’t boding well for Black boys. College enrollment for black men dropped 14.3% in Spring 2021 compared to spring 2020. The numbers are also bleak at community colleges, which typically enroll more racial and ethnic minority students. The number of Black males attending two-year colleges dropped by 21.5%. I recognize young people across the country are beginning to create their own pathways to success; we must help them in the variety of endeavors they pursue post-high school to achieve their goals. This is a critical reason I launched EAF’s first Career Pathways Expo which engaged high school students to speak directly with professionals to learn about a range of industries, career pathways, training programs, and employment opportunities – especially those underrepresented by people of color.
This evolution is grounded in the reality that while we have been shifting the life trajectories of young men of color away from the conditions of their zip codes, we need to delve even further into preparing these young men for life in general. Through EAF’s Eagles Soaring Beyond (ESB) program, we are deepening our focus on College Readiness, Workforce Readiness, Social-Emotional Learning, Financial Empowerment, and Institutional Preparedness. These are pillars upon which we are anchoring our work going forward . We are excited and hopeful as we roll out this new vision – stay tuned for how you can get involved in these efforts!.
Look out for these quarterly newsletters that demonstrate how your support makes this new, exciting chapter of EAF activate greater possibilities for the young men we serve.
Donald M. Ruff Jr.
How often do school-aged students have a chance to sit down and conduct a Q&A with the president of a bank? That’s what took place at the Eagle Academy for Young Men of the Bronx campus this past October.
John R. Ciulla, President & CEO of Webster Bank, traveled to the flagship Eagle Academy campus with executives and team members to celebrate the Webster/Eagle Academy Finance Lab. The Lab, funded by a $100,000 grant from Webster Bank’s charitable foundation, will offer financial education in each of the Eagle Academy Foundation’s six schools, including five in New York City and one in New Jersey. Donald M. Ruff Jr., President & CEO of EAF, also attended and participated in the panel discussion.
The event aimed to celebrate the partnership between Webster and Eagle, introduce students to the runway toward careers in finance, demystify the theories of financial empowerment and wealth building, and expose the Eagle students to professionals of color in the industry who were relatable, accessible, warm, and welcoming.
The Eagle Ambassador and tour guide Ibrahim started the pre-event interactions with a guided tour of the school building. Ibrahim walked guests through the different levels of the building, offering insightful history and facts about the campus, which opened in 2009. Fifty-plus young men attended, asked questions, and led much of the exciting morning and afternoon.
During the Q&A portion of the event, Eagle Academy Ambassadors Christopher and Bevon demonstrated great confidence while transitioning through questions and taking questions from their fellow Eagle Academy brothers in the audience.
The incredible insight and knowledge bestowed on the students was a joy to witness. It was equally matched by an audience of students who participated and asked critically thought-provoking questions that helped push the conversation into a heightened level of dialogue.
“The partnership that The Eagle Academy Foundation enjoys with Webster Bank and its predecessor, Sterling, is an ideal model for corporate engagement. EAF’s expanded vision for young men of color, “Eagles Soaring Beyond,” includes financial empowerment, and Webster has committed to developing pathways for Eagle students through awareness, education, and career pathways. Eagle Nation is grateful for all the ways we partner with Webster, and we look forward to even further collaborations,” said Ruff.
We are incredibly thankful to Assistant Principal Mathurs for his logistic execution, Principal Velazquez for his warm remarks, welcoming us into his school community, and the Webster Bank team for partnering with us in this impactful event.
The Eagle Academy Foundation (EAF) and Mary Baldwin University partnership, established in 2021, aims to give Eagle Academy students admittance and scholarship opportunities at the respected four-year university. The intention is to encourage Eagle academy students from across the six-school network to consider the University, which was founded in 1842. In November, representatives from Mary Baldwin, for the first time, visited each of the six Eagle Academy campuses for a special Direct Admit event where 101 students received on-the-spot admittance.
The partnership, created by EAF President & CEO Donald M. Ruff Jr. alongside Dr. Ernest E. Jeffries, Vice President of Student Engagement at Mary Baldwin, aims to enroll as many interested students as possible and embed an Eagle’s Nest at the university.
An Eagles Nest, where students from the Eagle Academy network enroll in the same college or university, promotes a special bond.. The Eagle’s provide support, and their embedded cohort enables them to learn together, growing social, mental, and academic skills with one another’s help. At Mary Baldwin University alone, there are currently nine scholars entwined within this unique network –that number could easily double before the next school year rolls around!
Dr. Jeffries’ involvement goes far beyond just simply accepting students. He launched a program called The Power Network where young men of color can gain invaluable insight and lessons based on the five wells: well-dressed, well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, and well-balanced. Dr. Jeffries prides himself on being a visible and approachable advisor, mentor, and teacher who continues to make a positive, holistic difference in students’ lives.
Today we caught up with the student affairs leader to hear about his experiences with the partnership.
EAF: How did the Mary Baldwin Eagle Academy partnership come about?
Dr. Jeffries: Donald Ruff, myself, and several others were working with a team from Citizens Bank on one of their outreach initiatives specifically geared toward young men of color. I heard what Eagle was doing, which matched up with one of my passions—helping. Everything that I heard struck a chord. We had an opportunity to get some students at Mary Baldwin, myself, the vice president of Student of Enrollment Management, and our Board of Trustees chair came to New York and met with Donald Ruff in Brooklyn, at Ocean Hill. We talked about Mary Baldwin, and what we were trying to do. We had a very similar philosophy to the Eagle’s Nest, parallel to how Eagle takes care of its students. From there, we came back up and did a Direct Admit event where we interviewed students and offered them scholarships. We ended up offering scholarships to over 60 kids. Our first cohort of nine students is on campus now.
EAF: What are some of your goals for the program? Is there a certain number of students you’re trying to get to the campus?
Dr. Jeffries: We’re trying to get as many students as possible on campus and pouring valuable life lessons into them while we have them there. We started another program in conjunction with this called The Power Network. This is a professional preparation program for young men of color. We are working with what we call the five wells. One of my fraternity brothers, a high school superintendent, said that young men of color must be well-dressed, well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, and well-balanced. We are utilizing those five categories to teach different programs. For instance, we have our well-dressed category, so we hosted a dress for success workshop. We are showing them all the different categories of apparel and how to match ties. It’s incredible what we’ve been able to do.
EAF: Thinking about it from the student lens, what do you tell students who are considering Mary Baldwin? What makes the experience unique?
Dr. Jeffries: We are a small college, so as a student, you’re not a number. At Mary Baldwin, you will be able to make connections. People will know who you are. There are a lot of avenues for student support. Some people are going to really, genuinely look out for you in a lot of different ways. It’s just hard to get lost. The environment is unique.
EAF: For a parent who may be hesitant to send their child far away to college, how do you reinforce that Mary Baldwin is the right place for their child?
Dr. Jeffries: I make an effort to connect with Eagle parents. They have my cell phone number. I’ve already talked to a few parents this year who may have had a variety of concerns. I’m a great person to talk to, always reassure them and am there for them always.
EAF: What are your greatest hopes and dreams for this collaboration?
Dr. Jeffries: It is my hope that Mary Baldwin will be the school of choice for Eagle students, and each student considering college considers us. We’ve got to produce many Eagle graduates. We want these young men to leave and say they had great experiences because, if we do our job, and they have great experiences, guess what? They will be talking about those experiences, and you know, that will sell itself. I hope we will be on the mind of every single student as a consideration.
The Eagle Academy Annual Plaque reveal is a powerful, celebratory moment for the most recent alumni of Eagle Academy. It takes place during the “Giving of Thanks” event, where there is a collective “potluck” on the day before Thanksgiving, with staff, scholars, alumni, and families providing a dish and families assisting in serving. The day consists of many ongoing competitions in the classrooms, game rooms, open gym, and more.
The plaque reveal is a full circle moment where the most recent graduating class returns to their respective campus for a day of community, entrenching their names forever in the history of Eagle Academy.
This November, members of The Eagle Academy Foundation traveled to the Bronx campus to participate in the powerful moment in which the Class of 2022 revealed their class plaque. This tradition has been a staple since the first class of Bronx seniors graduated in 2008.
Truly serving as a homecoming, graduates from the Bronx participated in an alumni Q&A discussion in which they dropped incredible knowledge and wisdom on current students about life during and after their high school years at Eagle Academy.
During the climactic Plaque Reveal for returning 2022 graduates, Important figures in Eagle history spoke during the moment, including EAF’s current President & CEO, Donald M. Ruff Jr.
“I want to congratulate all the young men. [The pandemic] has been an incredibly challenging period, but to be here in person and celebrating in love is a beautiful thing,” Mr. Ruff said to the young men before the class plaque was revealed.
The day possessed an extra layer of special as NYC Schools Chancellor David C. Banks returned to the school he served as principal from 2004-2008. Amongst NYC Department of Education officials included longstanding former Eagle Academy Foundation staff: Deputy Chancellor of Family, Community Engagement & External Affairs Kenita Lloyd, Deputy Executive Director of the Office of Safety and Project Pivot Aaron Barnette, and Chief of School Culture, Climate, and Well-Being Jawana Johnson. The presence of the former Academy and Foundation leaders added to the homecoming feel of the event.
The young men, many of whom returned from college and their workforce careers, cheered, and were thrilled to see their personal signatures entrenched in the class plaque, signifying their place in Eagle history.
“I’m happy to say this is the first time we are unveiling a plaque in our school community since 2018-2019,” Principal Velazquez said. “The reason this is important to us is because your name is cemented on our wall of legacy. Throughout our hallways your name and legacy will live forever.”
Nino Betances, a Fort Greene teen with 9 other siblings, will be the first in his family to attend college. He is the definition of Black excellence. He was the school council president at his alma mater, Eagle Academy in Ocean Hill. And he also mentors younger students, tutors in math, and is the co-captain of the football team.
Most people know Robert F. Smith as the nation’s wealthiest Black American, but his philanthropic efforts and initiatives make him much more. For years, the philanthropic giant has prioritized making a difference in communities in need of service.
In 2016, Smith’s Fund II Foundation started working with The Eagle Academy Foundation to support its mission to improve educational, career, and life outcomes for young men of color in New York City and across the country through education, mentoring, and post-secondary support. This successful relationship has led to many incredible developments including an in-depth interview with Eagle Academy Ambassadors and ringing the NYSE opening bell. Most recently, Fund II Foundation invited 23 students across the country to Robert F. Smith’s home in Denver, Colorado. Three Eagle Academy students attended the seven-day trip in what they unanimously described as a special experience they will never forget. EAF sat down with Seniors Drequan Jackson and Tyron Simmons from the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Southeast Queens as they reflected on the trip and some of their goals for the upcoming school year.
EAF: How did the opportunity for you to attend the trip come about?
Jackson: Since I am an Ambassador for the Eagle Academy Foundation, my school guidance counselor asked me if I wanted to attend the Fund II Foundation program out in Colorado, and I gladly accepted the opportunity.
Simmons: I was very excited when I heard about the program through my ambassador coordinator, Dr. Garner. He told me about the trip, and we spoke to my principal about the opportunity. I was immediately excited once I discovered I would go with some of my peers. I’d also be able to meet students around my age and go so far out of New York to Colorado, which I knew would be an enjoyable experience. Also, I met Mr. Smith last year during an interview with the ambassadors, so I knew his values. We looked up to him and did a lot of research about him. I knew he was interested in improving his community through youth engagement.
EAF: Tell me a little bit about the trip. How long were you there? What are some of the things you did daily?
Jackson: We attended the trip for seven days. We went through many social and mental exercises that shifted our mindsets by the end of the week. And we had workshops where we learned about climate change, horses, birds, coding, engineering, entrepreneurship, and so much more. We also learned how to communicate better and respect each other’s beliefs.
Simmons: When we first met on the first day, it was crazy how it was almost as if we had known each other our whole lives. We immediately clicked when we met people from Colorado, California, North Carolina, Mississippi, and all these different places. It was a great experience to meet people and already have such a strong bond. We also took a personality test and talked about how everyone’s personality is as unique as their fingerprint. Even within an exact personality type, there will still be one or two small things that are different about you than others. Some days, we would split off into two groups; one group went fly-fishing, while another did a climate change seminar and horseback riding.Mr. Smith joked: ‘Millionaires golf, but billionaires fly fish.’ It was great to have that experience at our age and someone to look up to give us this insight into what it would be like and what we can have if we put our minds to it. Each day, we ended off with a Drum Circle; there was an amphitheater with instruments. It was nice having those moments. Each day, we grew stronger and stronger together. We journaled about different experiences we had in life, and our counselors even participated. There were times it got emotional. Many people were able to break down barriers that they couldn’t break down at home. So they could have this space, and have these people they were comfortable speaking to about different things happening in their lives was therapeutic for them. Every day was jam-packed with something to do.
EAF: As you look back and reflect, how would you describe the experience?
Jackson: Mind-blowing because I didn’t think I would be able to take this type of trip to where I could get these types of benefits that could change my life. The communication among the students was excellent because we connected like we knew each other [for years]. That was a great way of dealing with each other because we got to hang out more rather than not get to know each other, or how should I say, we connected right off the dot when we got off the plane and started talking in the car on our way to the program itself. On the last day, we connected and were given all these gifts and exchanged emails to stay in contact with one another. The last day was the most memorable. The counselors were telling us what to look forward to in the future.
Simmons: I remember the first day we got there and getting to know each other. I will remember and keep with me the experience of being able to connect with the group. I will remember many lessons on financial literacy, climate change, and learning about everyone’s life experiences. I lived in a billionaire’s house for a week! You know, just being able to say that it’s just insane, and being able to remember the experiences I had with those people, it’s crazy to be able to do that! The Director of the Fund II Foundation, Ms. Linda, was there the entire time. She was with us daily, and we got to know her and her family. Her granddaughter and her great-grandson were there. They were just unique experiences and memories that we received. For example, her great-grandson, he’s about three, but he was very smart and articulate. He would run around where we would be doing different seminars and workshops. These little things made the experience big for us, something we can never forget.
EAF: What are some of your goals for the upcoming school year?
Jackson: Some of my goals for my senior year are to finish strong. I want to leave a mark at my school that people think about me [and my positive influence] when they think about the choices that they’re making. I want people to remember who I am instead of thinking, ‘Oh, this person just left to go to college.’
Simmons: My goal for my senior year is to make it as memorable as possible. Within the last three years since I started high school, I became increasingly involved in my school environment beyond academics. Before that, I just went to school and went home. I was never much of a school community person. There was a switch [during the pandemic] where I found my voice. It also had to do with the ambassador program, meeting new people, and stepping out of my comfort zone to get to know them, interview them, ask them questions, and be more of a public speaker. Something clicked when we went back to school during my 11th-grade year, and I wanted to be involved in everything possible. I learned that my experience would only be as good as I made it.