Little did anyone know when James Kakaire-Poche transferred from North Carolina in September 2020 that he would be the final Student Transfer Education Plan — better known as STEP — student to graduate from Scarsdale High School. Kakaire-Poche graduated in the spring of 2022 and matriculated at NYU last fall.
STEP’s mission was “to bring promising underprivileged students of color to Scarsdale High School for their junior and senior years to immerse themselves in the school’s rich curriculum, college counseling, extracurricular and volunteer activities while living with a local host family and exploring the many cultural opportunities of the New York area.”
Then-SHS social studies teacher Eric Rothschild created the program, which initially brought multiple African-American students from what was then the segregated south to Scarsdale, and later expanded to include Native Americans and others from around the United States. The program eventually looked to enroll one student per year so there were usually two STEP students in Scarsdale at a time. It was one of the many positive impacts Rothschild, who died in 2018, two years after celebrating the program’s 50th anniversary, had on the community.
In September 2021, the STEP board began internal conversations about their ability to sustain the program, in addition to wondering if the program was becoming outdated. In February 2022, after forming a committee and hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant, the group voted to dissolve the nonprofit after an exhaustive study and discussions, as many didn’t want to let the program go. Approval from New York State came last October.
“For some people it was super hard,” 11-year board member Nan Berke said. “People have cherished their time on the board and ultimately in the vote to disband there was one nay vote, and I think it was a sentimental vote for Eric Rothschild. It was a long process and I think people had time to understand better why it was necessary and in the end it wasn’t very contentious.”
It has taken the last year to work on the legalities of disbanding the organization — some hoops still remain — to decide where the organization’s remaining funds will be dispersed and come to a place where the board was comfortable making the decision officially public, which came this week.
“It was an incredibly painful and difficult decision because it’s been such a fixture in the community and it honored Eric Rothschild,” longtime board member Beth Ehrich Berkeley said. “It was his legacy for over 55 years. When it started it was certainly an incredibly important program that benefitted and changed a lot of lives and was very progressive at the time. But I think that the world has changed.
“I think unrelated to COVID, but during COVID so many of us came into a different kind of consciousness of how the world is perceived, and I think there’s a phoenix in STEP, to be perfectly honest. I think it needs a reenvisioning, but I think there are opportunities where maybe we can go local or impact more people or make it more of a dialogue where it becomes something that’s beneficial to an audience who might need it or get a step up from having STEP in their lives.”
The remaining funds will eventually be split between Grad Bag, Mount Vernon Star Scholars, Project Morry and Yonkers Partners in Education, which are all in line with STEP’s mission, and a celebration of STEP will take place Sunday, April 16.
“It is a peculiar celebration, but a lot has been achieved and I hope the focus of the celebration will be to look back, but also to focus on these organizations and I hope people in the Scarsdale community will consider supporting them in honor of STEP’s legacy through volunteering or financial contributions,” Berke said.
The Scarsdale district and high school administration declined to comment since STEP is a separate entity from the school district. Board of education president Amber Yusuf said she was unaware the program was ending. The school board’s role in recent years was to approve the continuation of the program in the district. Yusuf said she was aware that no students were presented the last two years coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Berke, who was 2015 graduate Robert T. Lee, Jr.’s STEP mom, has been with the organization since 2012 and served as the chair at one time. In addition to the dozens of board members who act as a support network for the STEP student and host family, the leadership needed to be strong in order to make the program successful.
“The thing with STEP is you’re dealing with a young adult’s life,” Berke said. “You’re responsible. If you’re not doing it 110% you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s just too much responsibility.” She added, “No one would take the mantle.”
That was a pre-COVID problem, as was finding qualified students to apply to the program. During and post-COVID, DEI came to the forefront following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. It was another reason for the STEP board to take a step back and consider the future of the program.
“Eric Rothschild founded the program in the 1960s and it was born in the Civil Rights movement and the whole idea of taking a child out of their home community is no longer considered desirable,” Berke said. “It’s asking a lot to ask a teenager to leave their home environment. Not every teenager can do that. They needed the emotional stability and the intellectual ability to flourish in Scarsdale. It was a hard combination to find the students. And the parents had to accept. Many don’t want their child to go during high school. I don’t think I would have let my kid go.”
There is also the reality that STEP did not work out for every student who came to Scarsdale, including those who didn’t stay for two years and even for those who did graduate.
“It has worked in a lot of ways,” Berke said. “I don’t know if we’ve always faced when it hasn’t worked. I’m sure it hasn’t worked more than most of us realize, but it does seem so many of the students have done so well. At the 50th [anniversary celebration] I talked to the students who were there and they had very pleasant memories. They mentioned one of their fellow students didn’t and we haven’t heard from him.”
Lee was one of those many success stories and Berke absolutely cherished the time the spent together. They talk every couple of months and reach out via text throughout the year.
At first Lee was homesick and Berke could tell. She was happy to see he eventually was able to make strides to feel comfortable in his new surroundings.
“Getting there, I was a little nervous about what it would be like to make friends,” Lee said. “Growing up here in Memphis I had a perception of people in the North being a lot more blunt, being a lot less nice, and I was not a confrontational person, always ever easy going, so I was worried about what that dynamic would be. But I got there and it was the complete opposite — everyone was so open and welcoming. Of course, it did take a minute to open up and really forge those friendships, but I had a lot of support to do that.”
Lee is the youngest for four children and comes from a two-parent home. He had the support of both of his families and was determined to maximize his educational options by making the sacrifice of going to live with strangers in a strange place.
“It’s been almost 10 years since I got there and joined the program and even to this day it still shows up heavily in my life,” Lee said. “I think it’s had a huge impact on not only the success I’ve been able to achieve, but what I will achieve in the future, and also the progress I’ve made for my family. I was the first of my siblings to go to college and to finish. [For] my niece and nephew [it] was the first college graduation they got to see. That planted a lot of seeds for myself and my family. There are skills I learned from STEP and being at the high school, which I still use to this day. It shows up a lot in my life.”
Lee went to Vanderbilt for his undergraduate studies and masters in leadership and organizational performance. He is currently working in the healthcare field as a human resources operations associate in Nashville.
“Of course I would love for [STEP] to continue because I know the impact it had on my life and I know there are still a lot of students across the U.S. who would greatly benefit from it, but I also understand that it’s different times,” Lee said. “When the program first started there were a lot of families who were committed to opening up their homes. We also have to realize it’s a sacrifice for the families of Scarsdale, too, to open their home to a student for two years — and even beyond that, to continue to support them. You have to be able to be agile and meet the needs of this generation and I think unfortunately they were having trouble meeting that.”
Though Ehrich Berkeley never hosted a STEP student, she spent a lot of time with them over the years entertaining them at her house and helping with driving and other necessary components of the program. She believes the overall impact was “mutual” for both the STEP students and the community.
“The premise of STEP is that education is the ticket,” Ehrich Berkeley said. “What education is has been an evolving definition, but I think so many of the kids from our program have academically, culturally, politically and socially have benefitted from coming to our world and coming to New York and experiencing something that is very different than what they might have had in their own personal realms.”
Ehrich Berkeley and Lisa Rodman were the most recent duo in charge of finding and selecting candidates. There were times they got far into the process and a family would opt out. Other times they found the promising candidates did not have legal status in the United States and couldn’t proceed. For those students who did come to Scarsdale, Ehrich Berkeley credited the district for providing a high level of support.
“The thing that breaks my heart about [STEP] going away is it just really was a community effort that brought a lot of people together for a lot of the right reasons,” she said. “There was no better-intended program that I am aware of...”
The Honorable O. Rogeriee Thompson, who is now the senior judge in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, was in the second group of STEP students, attending SHS from 1967-1969. She came from Greenville, South Carolina, where she had been attending an all-Black school. One summer her guidance counselor signed her up for a “very intensive” learning program at a college in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is where she learned about the STEP program. “Being in Scarsdale was a 180 degree change for me,” she said.
“Scarsdale was just a very eye-opening experience,” said Thompson, whose STEP parents were a school teacher and a New York Times editor. “It was the first time I had that kind of social interchange with people who were not people of color. It was the very first time I had that kind of interchange with people who were very wealthy. And looking at the difference between the kinds of programs and the whole structure of Scarsdale High School compared to the schools that I had attended in South Carolina, it was just night and day. Not that my teachers in South Carolina were not fine people, but you could see the resources we had compared to the resources other people had — it was just a profound difference.”
With “bravery” from both herself and her mother — her older sister was away at college and her father had died — Thompson headed to Scarsdale. She only later learned that neighbors had told her mother not to let her “go live with some white strangers.” But Thompson, who described herself as “adventurous” and with great curiosity, was looking for new experiences, to meet new people and to travel.
She traveled to Scarsdale by herself by train and made a stop in New York City, where she experienced an underground subway system for the first time and then emerged to see her first skyscrapers. While in Scarsdale she joined a Mariner Girl Scout troop and learned to sail. She was introduced to Brown University, where she later attended. Her horizons were truly expanded.
Thompson attended the 50th anniversary of STEP and got to speak to some of the more recent graduates.
“I know what experience I had,” Thompson said. “I wonder about the students who more recently participated about the value they felt they added to their lives. The students I spoke to at the reunion felt it added value to their academic and life experience. Certainly for them they didn’t feel it was outdated.”
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