Receiving access to quality education within the U.S. education system has been an uphill battle for many students. Students from underserved communities in particular often struggle the most to receive equal access to education as their peers.
NAF, a national non-profit organization, recognizes this and has been working to close the racial equity gap within education. Since its founding in 1980, NAF has directly collaborated with communities to ensure better educational outcomes. Through a comprehensive and unique approach — and the help of philanthropic and community leaders – NAF aims to transform high school education and prepare students for college, career and future success.
NAF’s Educational Design
NAF’s approach to education sets students up for success from the beginning of their high school career. Across the U.S., NAF has academies within existing public and private high school systems that serve as small learning communities for students. The NAF educational design includes four key components that drive the organization closer to achieving its mission of transforming the high school experiences for underserved students. These four components include:
- Academy Development and Structure: Each NAF academy is structured to be small and focused to provide better learning opportunities for students. NAF also promotes open enrollment, which provides more students with a greater chance at having a successful and bright future.
- Curriculum and Instruction: NAF’s Program of Study not only incorporates the U.S. Department of Education’s 16 career clusters but also provides additional curricular options to expose students to a wider variety of interests and better prepare them for future careers. NAF aims to empower both teachers and students to go beyond the classroom and apply their knowledge to real-world situations. In addition to this circular curriculum, students have the option to obtain the NAFTrack Certification, which is NAF’s employability credential, making students career ready upon graduation.
- An Advisory Board: The NAF advisory board is carefully crafted and includes individuals from the business and education fields to help best guide the organization and its students. Advisory board members mentor students and collaborate closely with educators at the academies.
- Work-Based Learning Opportunities: Work-based learning allows students to go beyond the classroom and directly apply their skills to the workplace. NAF provides students with career awareness, exploration and preparation activities, including internship opportunities.
NAF’s Impact on High School Students
NAF started with just one academy, the NAF Academy of Finance in New York City, and has since grown to hundreds of academies spread across the U.S., mainly in underserved communities. These academies are specifically designed for high school students and focus on growing the finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, engineering and health sciences industries. The majority of the students who attend these academies later go on to work in STEM-related fields.
In the 2022 – 2023 school year, NAF supported 604 academies across 35 states and territories with over 112,000 students in attendance. In 2022 alone, there was a 99% graduation rate for seniors, with 88% of those graduating planning on later attending college. These students might not otherwise have had the educational opportunities and later career successes if NAF academies were not available to them to help them succeed.
Robert F. Smith’s Commitment to NAF and Educational Philanthropy
In 2023, philanthropist and American businessman, Robert F. Smith, was appointed to NAF’s Board of Directors to serve as Vice Chairman alongside adjoining Vice Chairman, Kenneth Chenault.
“I am honored to join NAF’s Board of Directors as a Vice Chairman and to continue to support the organization’s vital mission, preparing high school students to meet the workforce challenges of tomorrow,” said Smith in a press release. “Through its STEM-based and career-oriented curriculum, NAF empowers its students to own their futures, chart new paths towards improved educational and career outcomes, and generate greater wealth to support and uplift their families and communities.”
Upon Smith’s appointment, he also made a personal $15 million donation to support the hundreds of NAF academies and high school students. This donation will directly support students through access to internship opportunities, resources that will grow program graduation rates for seniors and under-resourced women and Black students supported within the targeted metropolitan areas. These areas include Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Charlotte, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Houston, Texas; and the Jackson, Gulfport and Southaven areas of Mississippi.
These areas expand upon the work of Southern Communities Initiative to support new programming for students residing in under-invested-in areas of the Southern U.S. NAF academies will also excel from this donation through the implementation of career-focused studies and project-based learning, focused advisory boards to bridge between school and the workplace and hands-on learning opportunities.
NAF and Smith have a longstanding relationship through Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is the founding director and President. In 2020, NAF was named a grantee of Fund II Foundation’s African American Youth STEM Initiative. Additionally, Smith has joined NAF for various speaking engagements through the NAF network.
Beyond his involvement with NAF, Smith has been a longtime advocate for educational philanthropy through his leadership and financial support of various educational-based organizations. For example, Smith is the Chairman of Student Freedom Initiative, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that helps liberate select students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) from crushing educational debt through financial assistance and resources. Like NAF, Student Freedom Initiative aims to help students from underserved communities become successful in their future paths.