Prep Work

With Top Tutors For Us, founder Angelica Harris is helping Black high school students build academic skills and improve college admissions test scores in St. Louis and across the U.S.

Work

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By Michael Thomas

When Angelica Harris was in the eleventh grade, she thought she had a great plan. A competitive golfer and straight-A student, Harris figured she was a shoo-in for a scholarship at an elite university, where she would study, play her sport, and earn a degree free from the student debt typically associated with a top-tier education that was, until she took the ACT and got the shock of her young life.

“I got a 16,” Harris recalls. “I was a great student, so my score really shocked me. I was so confused on what was the disconnect. How could I do so well in the classroom but fail so miserably on a standardized test?”

That disconnect, and her resulting determination to improve, led Harris to found Top Tutors For Us, a service and platform that connects Black students with tutors who look like them in order to help students build academic skills and improve their test scores so that they can become more competitive in the college admissions process. 

A peek over Top Tutors for Us founder Angelica Harris' shoulder shows the startup's website.

The company, which was founded in 2022 and received an Arch Grant in 2023, offers its services to both individuals and schools, and participating students have shown dramatic results in improving their test scores. The business model is based on the research-backed notion that Black students with even just one Black teacher graduate at a higher rate. 

Initially, Harris didn’t make this connection, but instead thought that she simply needed formalized test preparation from established names in that field. She convinced her parents to pay for one such program and thought that would be the solution. When she got to the first session, however, she realized she was the only person of color in the room, her teacher was roughly four times her age, and her fellow students already had what she considered exceptional scores some in the low 30s even though they were younger than her. It was a difficult yet eye-opening experience, one that became even more surprising when she took the ACT for the second time and only went up two points. 

Harris was determined to get to the bottom of her lack of substantial progress. She realized that the problem was not only that the strategies she was taught at her test preparation classes didn’t work for her, but that she lacked the academic skills she needed to be successful. She dedicated herself to mastering those missing skills like English, reading, and math fundamentals, before she could have any hope of real progress.

Top Tutors for Us founder Angelica Harris (pictured left) meets with tutor and Washington University student Kamila Redd on campus.

This realization inspired Harris to create her own test preparation program for the ACT focused on academic skill-building. Harris created a spreadsheet and broke down every question on the test into categories, then identified what skills and concepts were essential for figuring out the answers to each category’s question. In a matter of just a couple of months, her score skyrocketed to a 29; a few months later, she took the test again and got a 32. 

“I found all of those big schools reaching out to me,” Harris says. “I ended up receiving full scholarships to Vanderbilt, Tulane, Wake Forest pretty much all the schools of my dreams.”

Harris chose to attend Washington University in St. Louis, moving from her home in Louisiana to begin her undergraduate career in 2016. She studied computer science and finance and played golf, just as she planned. What wasn’t planned was that her father was so proud of her achievements, he told all of his friends about her strategy, who in turn wondered if Harris would be willing to tutor their children so they could achieve similar success. Harris agreed, and was shocked to see such a dramatic increase in her students’ scores as well, with some scores jumping as much as 10 points. It became clear to Harris that she was onto something.

Top Tutors for Us tutor and Washington University student Lauren Enoch chats with startup founder Angelica Harris on campus.

“They had also tried the big test prep companies and appreciated the formula sheets, worksheets, and the ways I explained things,” Harris says. “But they also appreciated that I was very close to their age and I looked like them. They felt like they could relate to me.”

Harris continued tutoring students on test preparation throughout her undergraduate studies, and by the time she enrolled in the computer science graduate school at Washington University, she was learning about pathway development and how she could convert her successful tutoring ideas and services into a technological platform that would allow even more students to benefit. 

She worked on a tutoring management application as part of her graduate program, then participated in the university’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship the summer before she graduated, which allowed her to further develop and scale her program, as well as interview teachers, parents, and students on what they most appreciated about her program. It was a common refrain.

“I kept hearing the same thing they could see that other programs lacked cultural competency,” Harris says. “Minority students would talk about how they never had a teacher or tutor who came from their background or looked like them. That made me realize that I know a lot of really smart Black college students at Washington University; I also know that Black students typically struggle on standardized testing and that my program really works. What if I train these tutors in the program and then create an algorithm that matches with students? It could make a really big impact.”

That realization resulted in Harris founding Top Tutors For Us in 2022. Although the idea for the business was planted during her own test preparation journey and through personal tutoring during undergrad, Harris credits the Skandalaris Center with crucial networking, mentoring, and business development support that helped her build Top Tutors into what it has become less than two years after its founding.

“What’s really nice about Skandalaris is that they offer weekly training for new entrepreneurs on a different topic, like how to put together a pitch deck, how to approach VCs, financial planning, marketing, budgeting,” Harris says. “Entrepreneurship is not taught in school; you have to just do it. It’s really nice that the mentors they recruit have been there, done that. Just to be in that ecosystem and be able to connect with them and reach out whenever I have a question is helpful. There are some mistakes I didn’t make because there was an expert who advised me in the right direction.”

If she had any questions about the demand for her program, it was answered when she received 167 applications from prospective tutors after putting out a simple GroupMe message. Students from a number of elite universities Harvard, Howard, Stanford, Duke were eager to help and make a difference in the lives of high school students.

“Students’ scores have increased an average of four points, and what we hear is that they really like Top Tutors because they feel seen,” Harris says. “They feel connected to their tutor; many come from first-generation college backgrounds, and it’s very cool that they enjoy working with someone that shares their lived experience and can help them navigate this process.”

Top Tutors for Us founder Angelica Harris (pictured left in first photo), works with two members of her team, Coco Li and Sean Lin, who are software engineers helping to build out the startup's website and app.

After graduation, Harris received numerous prestigious job offers that she was tempted to take, but she realized that if she was really to make something of Top Tutors, she needed to devote herself to it full time. With that in mind, she accepted an invitation to be part of the 2023 Arch Grants cohort, which has allowed her to further develop and scale Top Tutors and has provided her invaluable networking opportunities and business connections that helped her enter into a partnership for her services with St. Louis Public Schools. 

“Just to be in that ecosystem of entrepreneurs who have been in the ed-tech industry and who also worked with public schools is invaluable,” Harris says. “Every week, I’m having coffee or chats with different Arch Grants recipients. It’s opened me up to networks and has also helped me get more business. I think every entrepreneur goes through growing pains, so it’s really helpful to hear their stories and learn how they [have overcome] those challenges early on.”

After signing a contract for her company’s services with St. Louis Public Schools, Harris secured partnerships with KIPP Charter Schools, New Orleans Public Schools, and she has forthcoming partnerships with Kairos Charter Schools and an education nonprofit in Los Angeles. These partnerships have allowed Harris to build a team of eight people and launch a new app, which will debut later this year, offering tutors additional features that allow them to manage their students’ progress in an enhanced manner and better personalize the program based on students’ individual needs. 

“I feel very supported by those kinds of programs, like Skandalaris and Arch Grants, that come with vast mentorship,” Harris says. “I’ve learned that a lot of entrepreneurship is about who you know and [I have found] that here, even people in senior roles are willing to take a call or have coffee if you reach out to them.”

Top Tutors for Us founder Angelica Harris poses in front of Graham Chapel on Washington University's Danforth campus.

Harris has big plans for Top Tutors and hopes to continue to grow her partnerships with schools and individual participants while continuing to enhance the user experience and capabilities of her platform. 

Although Harris is still wrapping her head around the fact that her personal test preparation journey has led her to her current path, she wouldn’t have it any other way, and she’s just glad that so many others can benefit from what helped her succeed. 

“I learned that strategies only work if you have that foundation, and if you lack academic skills, those strategies won’t carry over,” Harris says. “I know a lot of Black students struggle on standardized testing because of this, so we are really making a tangible impact.” 

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