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Pauletta and Denzel Washington Family Scholarships Presented at Harlem Village Academies

Math, science and perseverance take center stage as Cedars-Sinai research scholarships are awarded 

Los Angeles - June 7, 2010 – A public charter school in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood hosted the June 7 presentation of the seventh annual Pauletta and Denzel Washington Family Gifted Scholars Program in Neuroscience awards. Founded by Deborah Kenny, Ph.D., in 2001, Harlem Village Academies gained national acclaim for turning at-risk students into college-bound scholars. The academies made history in 2007 as the first in Harlem to achieve 100 percent proficiency in math and science, and more than 90 percent in reading.

Offered by the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurosurgery, the scholarships allow recipients to work during the summer months with world-renowned physicians, neurosurgeons and scientists. The program provides $2,500 in monthly support for a graduate-level researcher and $2,000 a month for an undergraduate. Recipients are expected to prepare a scientific abstract or paper to submit to a national neuroscience, cancer or neurosurgery organization.

This year’s graduate-level recipient is George K. Hanna, a resident of Panorama City, Calif., who is completing his first year of medical school at St. Louis University in Missouri and plans to pursue an MD-PhD program to become a neurosurgeon and research scientist. He received numerous scholastic awards, participated in two research projects while an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and served as an assistant to a physician specializing in neurology and psychiatry.

“His deep passion for serving others resonates in his treatment of patients and affinity for making them feel better,” said the physician, writing in support of Hanna’s scholarship application. “Unfortunately, many members of the medical profession are concerned with the monetary gain, but George understands the true essence of health care, as he is concerned with upholding integrity, protecting the underserved, and delivering care that is beyond normal expectations.”

Coincidentally, Hanna was born at Cedars-Sinai and in 2009 became a patient of the Department of Neurosurgery when he was seriously injured in a car crash. He has made a full recovery.

Joseph H. McAbee, of Woodruff, S.C., the undergraduate-level scholarship recipient, served as valedictorian for his high school class and received a full scholarship to Wofford College, a liberal arts college in Spartanburg, S.C. McAbee, whose major is biology with a concentration in neuroscience, is completing his sophomore year. He intends to become a physician and research scientist.

Several Wofford professors submitted recommendations for McAbee, describing him as a very serious student with outstanding intelligence and an exemplary work ethic. He is humble, polite, cooperative and highly motivated, they noted. “Joseph is a remarkably well-rounded and mature young man,” wrote one professor. “He is devoted to his academic studies, but he also loves music (he plays the French horn) and he is passionately committed to serving those in need. His volunteer work includes regularly volunteering at Spartanburg Regional Hospital, and his calm and capable demeanor would put any patient at ease.* 

In case changing circumstances prevent a recipient from pursuing his scholarship, two alternates were named. Daniel A. Nwachokor of Missouri City, Texas, is a graduate of Grambling State University in Louisiana who will receive his medical degree from the University of Kansas 2013. The undergraduate-level alternate is Kwame A. Firempong of Inglewood, Calif., a 2010 high school graduate of Windward School in Los Angeles.

This year’s presentation program included remarks by Pauletta and Denzel Washington; neurosurgeon Keith L. Black, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the research-focused Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute; and Lawrence Daniels, M.D. One of the first recipients of a Washington Family scholarship in 2004, Daniels is now in his fifth year of a neurosurgical residency at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, where he is currently conducting research at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.

When Black announced seven years ago the establishment of the scholarship program, he noted that math and science scores were down nationwide and many college graduates were opting for more lucrative but less rewarding careers than those in science and medicine. He envisioned the Washington Family scholarships as one small way to encourage students to pursue challenging professions that offer more than immediate gain.

Appropriately, this year’s awards presentation was hosted by Harlem Village Academies, a public charter school that emphasizes rigorous standards of excellence, teacher autonomy and accountability, and student discipline and support. Most fifth-grade students entering the school are two to four years below grade level, but through a rich liberal arts curriculum and an environment built around the values of compassion, hard work, responsibility, integrity, and kindness, students who might not be academically motivated become high achievers. 

"The Gifted Scholars Program is a wonderful example for our students,” said Kenny, founder and CEO of Harlem Village Academies. “It demonstrates that hard work and dedication result in academic excellence.  We are thrilled to share this day with the Washington family, the scholars and Dr. Black."

As part of the awards presentation, Arthur J. Ochoa, senior vice president for Community Relations & Development at Cedars-Sinai, presented the school with a check on behalf of the medical center’s departments of Neurosurgery and Community Relations. The donation will support the school’s math and science programs.

“Harlem Village Academies students recently became the first eighth-graders ever in Harlem to achieve 100 percent proficiency on the state math test,” he noted. “In addition, 100 percent also achieved proficiency in science, 96 percent in social studies, and 92 percent in reading. Cedars-Sinai is pleased to be able to encourage the hard work of these teachers and these students, and we view our contribution as an investment in the medical care and research breakthroughs they will bring about.”

Black said he considers Harlem Village Academies to be an ideal venue for the Washington Family Gifted Scholars award program.

“Whether conducting novel scientific research, performing a demanding brain operation, or studying to rise from a life of despair to one of great promise, a common theme is working hard to live up to your potential, and a worthy goal is escaping the limits of self to accomplish amazing things for humanity,” he said. “By providing discipline and support, as well as an atmosphere in which teachers are passionate about teaching, Harlem Village Academies is changing the lives of its children while serving as a model for other schools across the nation.”

Pauletta and Denzel Washington gladly offered their name and ongoing involvement in the neuroscience scholarship program when it was launched in 2004 because they are strong believers in the value of family and the empowerment of education.

*Photos available upon request