By Sylvester Brown Jr.
Sometimes an early life event can impact a person’s career trajectory.
That’s the case with Angelica Harris, founder and CEO of Top Tutors for Us, a company that specializes in teaching mostly students of color the fundamentals of standardized testing strategies.
In little more than a year, Harris’ company has already signed contracts with St. Louis and New Orleans’ school districts and other educational entities such as Kipp St. Louis. What’s most interesting is that Harris’ tutoring model took seed in her high school years when she struggled to achieve a better ACT score.
Harris was born and raised in New Orleans’ Westbank area, aptly named because the mostly residential area lies on the western bank of the Mississippi River. She was seven years old when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, and can’t fully comprehend the full devastation.
But she remembers the images of drowned houses, downed bridges, dead people floating in high waters or covered in body bags.
She recalls how her parents, who owned their own daycare business, had to shutter the establishment, pack their six kids in a car and drive 18-hours (usually a 3-hour commute) to her grandmother’s house in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The family, including her grandmother, had to pack up and move again a month later to Jacksonville Mississippi after Hurricane Rita struck in September 2005.
Harris remembers life after the hurricanes and going back to their hometown as chaotic and intense. As one of the older of her siblings, Harris tended to children at the daycare and helped care for her younger brother who was diagnosed with autism at that time.
“After our neighborhood was struck by Hurricane Katrina, I had to split my time between school and helping to rebuild our life,” she said.
At an early age, Harris joined “First Tee,” a national nonprofit program that teaches kids strength-building through golf. Having her clubs with her as she traveled from Louisiana to Mississippi was a salvation for the grade schooler.
“I was a great student,” Harris recalled. “I was extremely disciplined and hard-working as a child. I loved school, especially math. I loved calculations and counting things. I planned to be an entrepreneur like my parents.”
It wasn’t until junior high school while taking the ACT test, Harris realized she had a problem. Most competitive universities prefer scores in the 32-36 range. Harris desired to attend an Ivy League school which requires average test scores higher than 30. Harris recalled her horrified reaction when she saw her ACT scores.
“My initial score was a 16 with a 12 in reading…I couldn’t understand how my scores were low?,” she said.
She said her parents signed her up with an “expensive test prep company” to with her grades up but it only helped marginally.
“Everybody in the course had scores in the high 20’s and 30’s – that’s what I was aiming for,” Harris said, adding: “When I tested again, I only raised my score to 18.”
Harris said she had no intention of letting a low-test score stop her from attending a high-quality college. She said she buckled down, “studied, practiced and practiced” to help fill the gaps missing from the prep course on her own.
One key to overcoming her educational obstacles was embedded in self-inspection. She was always among the few black faces in her private school classes. She said she felt self-conscious and intimidated and was hesitant to ask questions in class.
Once she addressed her self-identified short-comings, Harris wound up with an ACT score of 32, 1.5 million dollars in scholarship opportunities and a “full ride” offer to her “dream school,” Washington University in St. Louis.
It took Harris a while to acknowledge that she’d created a model for standardized test-teaching while still in high school. But through referrals from other parents who learned of her methods, she wound up successfully tutoring students-mostly African American-throughout her six plus years at Washington University. She still remembers the impact of a professional black college counselor from Los Angeles who contacted her just to say that he found her self-made tutoring program to be of great value.
It was around that time Harris realized she had stumbled on to her niche.
“It finally dawned on me that most of the Black high school students I tutored were saying they never had a black tutor,” she said. “Some felt they faced racism or micro-aggressions during their tutoring sessions. I was like ‘wow, there must be a better way for students of color to get tutoring from people who understood them.”
After graduating from Washington University with three degrees, including a master’s degree in computer science, Harris went about the business of officially establishing Top Tutors for Us. She pitched her idea and won Washington University’s Skandalaris Venture Competition. Along with a $10,000 award, winners of the competition receive expert mentorship to help commercialize and launch their ideas.
Armed with data showing that Black and Hispanic or Latino students routinely score lower on standardized testing, Harris decided her company would focus primarily on students of color who face some of the issues she grappled with in high school.
“A big problem we found with Black students is that of low confidence,” Harris explained. “Sometimes it’s being the ‘only one,’ with students of color hesitant to ask questions. I’ve developed an inclusive environment where our students work with tutors who know and understand them.”
Harris said she recruits from “Harvard to Howard,” with a special emphasis on graduates from the nation’s HBCUs. Applicants are vetted based on past test scores, with ACT scores higher than 28, Harris said. Past teaching, “leadership” experience and interpersonal skills are also vital, she added.
Everything about her online program is customized for students, Harris said. When parents sign their kids up with Top Tutors they receive study guides, session reviews, customized formula sheets, digital learning platforms and, most importantly, Harris stressed, “a large jump in their academic performance.”
She admits to being surprised by her company’s success since its founding in 2022. Not only has she signed with in and out-of-state schools and school districts, she notes how Top Tutors is already being compared with top-tier college admission service companies such as The Princeton Review.
Harris may be successful, but she remains humble.
“I don’t have that ego thing where I feel like I ‘made it.’ I’m always hungry for new information. I still have that student mindset. I’m literally like a sponge; I remain curious, I remain in discovery mode.
Harris is also unapologetic about her desire to tutor mostly students of color.
“Not every Black student is specifically looking for a Black tutor,” she explained. “We get that. But some do. Some students just want to learn from someone who shares their lived experience.”
“We don’t just make this possible for Black students. We make it easy.”