Harlem Knights proving to be bright lights

Robotics team has bucked poor academic trends in community


DETROIT – The numbers aren’t pretty when it comes to how proficient students are in math and science in the Harlem, New York school district.

According to a district report, 3 to 11 percent of the student populations performed at or above grade-level proficiency in math and just 25 to 59 percent demonstrated proficiency in science.

Taking it further, another report said 75 percent of middle schoolers in the district fail reading, according to a report.

But those numbers don’t play much of a role anymore for the members of the Harlem Knights robotics team.

Instead, the squad pays more attention to figures associated with coding, programming and what they dream they could earn one day since college has become an obtainable objective.


Setting up their future
Randy Garcia said it was “an accident” that he joined the robotics team at Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy.

A sophomore, Garcia said when he arrived at high school, friends told him to join the squad, although they did so with laughter underneath their breaths.

“My friends said to join this team as a joke,” Garcia said. “I ended up liking the team.”

Garcia certainly did, and like so many others who have been a part of the robotics team over the years, his life has been changed.

The team ended up advancing to FIRST World Championships in Detroit on April 25-29, but their success story goes well beyond wins and losses at that competition.

Students have filled a book with testimonials about what they have learned by being on the robotics team and how it has altered, in a good way, their plans going forward.

“If I had no knowledge of how much a team made me look forward to going to school, I’d be at home doing nothing productive all day,” wrote Madison Velez, class of 2020, in the book.

Before graduating in 2017, team member Malachi Blenman wrote about how, early on in high school, she “didn’t who I wanted to be in life, or where I wanted to go” before joining the team.

“Nothing but improvement has come out of me being on the robotics team,” she wrote. “I’ve met my closest friends through robotics, sharpened my skill in photography and videography, learned to delegate, became a more dedicated and involved student and became a more vocal individual. I went from being mute all sophomore year, to being able to present in front of volunteers and judges senior year.”

And it’s not only the lives of the team members that the robotics program is impacting.


Inspiration to the community
The team was started in 2005, and one of the its mentors, Faith Bianchi, said administrators saw the success of the robotics team and began to offer more engineering and computer classes at the school. 

Another of the team’s mentors is Chelsey Roebuck, who last November was awarded the Evelyn Kamen Rising Star Award for his accomplishments in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) for underrepresented populations. 

He was honored at a banquet alongside former President Barack Obama. 

According to the team’s website, every senior on the team over the past seven years has graduated and attended college, with most going into STEM majors. 

Just as important, the program has given students a place to find love, encouragement and mentorship toward their dreams, no matter what life at their actual homes might be like.

“It’s a place where they can be supported emotionally and academically,” Bianchi said.

For students who aren’t on the team and still think they are destined to underachieve, the presence of the robotics team has been a bright light of hope that success is possible.

“We have mentors that can teach us and show us things we normally don’t get to do,” Garcia said.

No doubt, Garcia and the rest of the team members are the ones laughing now. 

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