Balfour Academy celebrates three decades of success

This is the first summer in a decade that Meshel Clarke hasn’t spent at Bal­four Academy, a pro­gram estab­lished in 1983 by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity to change the way stu­dents think about them­selves and their futures.

“It sounds weird to say this, but Bal­four Academy changed my life,” said Clarke, a stu­dent of the pro­gram who grad­u­ated from North­eastern this spring with a bachelor’s degree in psy­chology. “This place is like family to me.”

All Bal­four stu­dents spend every summer between sixth– and 12th-​​grade on Northeastern’s campus, returning twice a week during the school year to the program’s Cah­ners Hall facility for tutoring and men­toring. During col­lege, Clarke worked for Bal­four, pro­viding the same men­toring and sup­port she received for years.

This summer, she enrolled in a master’s degree pro­gram in edu­ca­tion at Sim­mons Col­lege. Clarke wants to be an Eng­lish teacher and, last week, joked with the Bal­four program’s leaders — director Earl Stafford, BS’85, MPA’89, and clin­ical assis­tant pro­fessor of math­e­matics Carla Oblas — that she would return next summer as a teacher.

“Before I came to Bal­four, I didn’t want to teach,” Clarke said. “But I saw the dif­fer­ence all my teachers had made and what I was able to do as an instruc­tional assis­tant and knew it was the right path for me.”

In addi­tion to helping stu­dents get accepted to col­lege — and 90 per­cent of Bal­four stu­dents do — the pro­gram offers an even bigger incen­tive. Any Bal­four stu­dent who is accepted to North­eastern is rewarded with a full schol­ar­ship. This year, 43 Bal­four alumni are enrolled as North­eastern students.

“Pro­grams like this don’t usu­ally last this long, and one reason I think we have is because of Northeastern’s ded­i­ca­tion to these kids. We’ve proven that this is a pro­gram that works and is suc­cessful,” Oblas said.

In the first three years, Bal­four stu­dents take classes in sub­jects such as Eng­lish and math, which aim to pre­pare them for the next school year. Stu­dents entering the 10th, 11th and 12th grades take an SAT prep course and a college-​​level class taught by a North­eastern fac­ulty member.

“It wasn’t just text­books or busy­work,” said 17-​​year-​​old Carla Forbes, a stu­dent of the pro­gram who this fall will begin her senior year at Newton North High School. “There is a great open dia­logue of big ideas and real-​​world topics — not at all like the classes you get in high school.”

For stu­dents, Bal­four Academy shapes new views of what the future might hold. Tsega Birkneh, a 17-​​year-​​old track star at Boston Col­lege High School in Dorch­ester, said he long thought he wanted to be a pro­fes­sional ath­lete. But now, in his sixth year of Bal­four, he has dreams to study neu­ro­science and crim­inal jus­tice at Northeastern.

“I want my future to rely on my mind, not my body,” Birkneh said. “Even if I could make it as a pro­fes­sional ath­lete, just one bad thing could happen and it would all be over. This helped me look at my future, at what I wanted to do, with much more thought.”

Stu­dents are quick to point out Balfour’s greatest asset: Stafford, who has worked with the pro­gram since 1984, when he was a co-​​op employee. (A group photo out­side his office of that year’s stu­dents and staff shows Stafford in short ath­letic shorts. “I swear they were in style at the time,” he sighed.)

“Staff gives me such great insight about where I want to be in 10 years,” said 16-​​year-​​old Amanda Bar­rows, who this fall will begin her senior year at Brook­line High. Before Bal­four, she said, “I wasn’t thinking about col­lege, about what I’d do after grad­u­a­tion. I was thinking about tomorrow.”