action plan

Q&A: The start-up founders trying to help low-income students plan their financial futures

PHOTO: Courtesy of David Helene
Brooklyn Collegiate's Ryon Batson, Bronx High School for the Visual Art's Rodrigo Gonzalez, and Bronx High School of Business' Shakira Gonzalez Pena prepare for a group presentation during the UniFi Scholars summer 2014 program.

Georges Clement wants to keep students from experiencing what he did six months after college graduation, when he first realized what his student loan bills looked like.

“It was far too late,” he said. “And if someone like me, with two parents with graduate degrees having gone to top tier schools, was so in the dark regarding this process, I could only imagine what students with fewer resources must be going through.”

Now, a New York City-based education startup founded by Clement and David Helene is trying to address that with a curriculum making its way into some of the city’s high schools.

UniFi Scholars, which launched in 2014, offers both a summer and after-school program for high school juniors and seniors. The goal is for students to leave with a better understanding of their financial futures, and students are tasked with creating a plan that includes a budget for the next 10 years, a list of potential colleges, and estimates for how much it might cost to attend each one.

But the co-founders also know that talented students from low-income families are too often intimidated by the sticker price of schools that would actually offer them more financial aid, and more academic support, than cheaper schools.

UniFi Scholars co-founders David Helene (left) and Georges Clement.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
UniFi Scholars co-founders David Helene (left) and Georges Clement.

To help debunk those myths, guidance counselors at five city high schools — four of which are in the city’s Renewal school turnaround program (Brooklyn Collegiate, Bronx High School of Business, Flushing High School, and Richmond Hill High School) — were trained to teach the curriculum in an after-school program this fall. In the spring, the program is set to expand to a year-long program in 12 high schools partnered with the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation.

Clement and Helene sat down with Chalkbeat to explain how they’re hoping to help high-achieving students from low-income families feel comfortable with the financial choices ahead.

How have you designed the program to address students’ needs?

Clement: Finances are inherently sort of a sensitive topic for families. A lot of the myths around what types of schools to apply to, and general questions around affordability — a lot of it is coming from students’ parents. So we try to break down those kinds of misunderstandings.

Helene: We begin by framing what a young professional budget looks like and what monthly student loan repayment could look like. When a student sees, ‘Well, that actually looks reasonable or plausible,’ there’s sort of a lightbulb moment or an ‘aha’ moment.

Clement: When you make a curriculum highly personal, [students] are so much more engaged and interested because the project that they are putting together is not just for an academic environment — the project is for their future. It’s simply giving them the tools and giving them the framework to plan for that future.

Parents want their kids to go to college and they want it to be as cheap as possible. One thing we do focus on is making sure we give students a few takeaways to go back to their parents with. That could be around what types of schools they can possibly afford, or, “In order to fill out this form that’s going to unlock all of this aid that’s going to make college affordable for me, I need this collection of documents from you.”

What do you see when you present the curriculum in these schools?

Clement: We have an activity in the very first lesson that asks students to make a drawing or an illustration of where they want to be in five years. And we’ve heard from some of our instructors that the drawing and descriptions that students give is something that they haven’t necessarily heard from students that they thought they knew so well.

Brooklyn Collegiate senior Kayla Tucker and Richmond Hill High School senior Nirmala Sarabdial prepare for a group presentation during the UniFi Scholars summer 2015 program.
PHOTO: Photo courtesy of David Helene
Brooklyn Collegiate senior Kayla Tucker and Richmond Hill High School senior Nirmala Sarabdial prepare for a group presentation during the UniFi Scholars summer 2015 program.

Even in these schools, there is a significant number of students that are very intrinsically motivated, which is really super encouraging. We have two students from our first pilot program that we nominated for Posse scholarships and won Posse scholarships.

As much as we’d like to take credit for some of that, it’s due to these students being incredibly impressive even though those two students go to Banana Kelly and Bronx High School of Business, which are both Renewal schools.

Helene: Our students really understand the importance of opportunity. I’ve been really impressed to watch some of our kids network with adults and try to basically put into practice a lot of the concepts that we’ve talked about in class. When I was 17, I certainly was not able to do that.

How do students adjust their college application process as they go through the program?

Helene: We’ve seen horror stories where in October application lists consist of no schools and they’re starting from scratch. We would advise generally advise that students have between 10 to 12 schools that are a mix of match, reach, and safeties.

Clement: What’s interesting in the schools we’re working in is that for the most part they have a very defined system around every college-eligible senior applying for the CUNYs and SUNYs. I would like there to be a similar system where [students] have to define five private schools or just schools outside of the CUNYs and SUNYs that they have their eyes on, as well.

Helene: One of our kids just got into Syracuse University, which is great. He was a little nervous about the financial aid award, but he understands what it will likely look like on a monthly basis and has a plan for paying off his debt.

Where do you hope to see your own program in five years?

Helene: The low-income student to guidance counselor ratio is 1,000 to one, and that’s just guidance counselors. That doesn’t speak to college counselors, and there’s no such thing as financial aid counselors.

We want [UniFi] to just be something like the College Board that a student has to go through to get to college. They [would] have to come up with an accurate financial projection of what their four years will look like, or their two years, or however they’re going to spend their college experience.

Helene: Every school that we talk to feels the need and identifies the need.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”