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Project Provides Boston Youths a '13th Year' at Boarding Schools

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North Bridgton, Me--For Mauricio Vasquez, it is a long way from Boston's tough Dorchester neighborhood to the tranquility of rural Maine.

But for the 18-year-old graduate of South Boston High School, there are high hopes that a one-year detour at the private Bridgton Academy here will pave the way to a successful college career.

Mr. Vasquez says he is not suited to the quiet lifestyle in this tiny hamlet an hour's drive from the nearest city, Portland, and more than three hours from Boston.

"Come May 18, I won't think much about coming back to Maine," he says. But he admits that the atmosphere is conducive to studying, and says he has already urged a friend in Boston to apply for the same program he will complete on that day next spring.

That program is the Bostonian Project, an unusual partnership between the Boston school district and a number of independent boarding schools throughout New England.

Mauricio Vasquez and 15 other recent graduates of the city's public high schools are the first participants in the experiment designed to ensure their success in college. The idea is to provide them with an additional year of precollegiate education--one quite unlike their high school years in the troubled Boston system.

The program makes use of the "postgraduate" or "13th" year of precollegiate schooling, a seldom-discussed educational option that is heavily concentrated at the boarding schools of the Northeast. (See related story, this page.)

High-school graduates choose to enroll in a 13th-year program for a variety of reasons. Some need more intensive study in a particular academic area, or simply feel they need to mature a bit more before college. Others admit they did not take the college-application process seriously enough, or are planning to seek admission to higher-caliber institutions. This extra preparation is an expensive option, with a year's tuition and other charges at many of the schools offering the programs running from $12,000 to $16,000. Tuition, room, and board at the Bridgton Academy this year is $15,650.

'Looking for That Spark'

Organizers of the Bostonian Project are confident that a 13th year of study will prove beneficial to students from the city who show academic promise, but would be at risk for dropping out of college because of distractions at home or in their inner-city neighborhoods.

"We thought putting them in a private-school environment for a year would help them succeed in college," said Barbara Riley, director of Channels for Educational Choices, a Boston-based organization that recruits undergraduate minority students for independent schools in Massachusetts.

Mr. Riley helped write the proposal for the Bostonian Project with four other New England educators: Randolph L. Carter, director of the department of diversity and multicultural affairs of the National Association of Independent Schools; Thomas S. Curren, multicultural-affairs officer of the New Hampton School in New Hampton, N.H.; Robert Sperber, assistant to the president of Boston University; and Jerome C. Winegar, a headmaster for the Boston public-school system.

"There is an incredibly high dropout rate for Boston high-school graduates in college," said Mr. Carter. According to one study, only 31 percent of Boston students who entered college in 1983 were still en rolled in the same college in 1987. That attrition rate has improved somewhat in recent years, officials said, but there are still many challenges that keep numerous city high-school graduates from succeeding in college.

"We are taking students generally with fair to poor [admissions-test] scores" for the Bostonian Project, said Mr. Carter. "What we look for is that spark, that desire to improve their lives. I am sure there are a lot of kids who wake up in their senior years and say, 'Oh, my goodness, what was I doing?"'

Among the goals of the program are to provide students with another year to mature socially, to be exposed to challenging academic instruction and the rigors of college- level work, to learn to live away from home in a dormitory, and to sort out their college plans with the benefit of close attention from experienced admissions counselors.

The project materialized this year through two gifts from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund--a $100,000 outright grant and a $150,000 matching grant.

Forty-two Boston high-school students applied for the program, but there was only enough money to place 16 of them at nine independent schools throughout New England. At least a dozen additional in dependent schools have volunteered to participate in the program when more money becomes available.

The participating schools cover 50 percent of the cost of the students' 13th year. The Bostonian Project pays 40 percent, and the students and their families are supposed to come up with about 10 percent.

Of the students enrolled this year, nine are black, six white, and one Hispanic. There are 10 boys and six girls.

Origins at South Boston High

The Bostonian Project evolved from a more informal application of the same idea by Mr. Winegar when he was headmaster, or principal, of South Boston High School.

For several years in the 1970's, he recalls, the basketball team from South Boston went to Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Mass., for a weekend retreat be cause the two schools' coaches had attended college together.

At various times, the boarding school's admissions director suggested that Mr. Winegar consider ending a promising student from South Boston High to Cushing for a postgraduate year.

For several years, the suggestion "went in one ear and out the other," Mr. Winegar said. But in the early 1980's, "we struck on the perfect kid. He had low [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores, and a 2.0 grade-point average. He took all college-prep courses, but got a C in everything. But all his teachers loved him and thought he could do well."

With the help of financial aid, the student was sent to Cushing Academy for a postgraduate year. He went on to college at Cleveland State University, where he excelled academically and on the basketball court. "He's doing very well now" as a county tax administrator in Cleveland, Mr. Winegar said.

The South Boston High headmaster eventually helped steer about a dozen more of his students to post graduate programs at Cushing Academy and a few other independent boarding schools. Another Boston high school, Hyde Park, picked up on the idea as well.

A few years ago, Mr. Winegar and the other architects of the Bostonian Project began to consider how they could expand the idea to the entire city school system. Last fall, after more than 13 years at the helm of South Boston High, where he had been installed by a federal judge to guide its desegregation, Mr. Winegar was asked to step down and devote greater energy to developing the 13th-year project.

Now he administers the program from a private, donated office in Boston and travels around to the participating boarding schools to check on the progress of the first class of students.

"They are getting the additional year they need, but they are far enough removed from Boston that it forces them to make the break that is needed to succeed at college," he said. "In that year at the private schools, they become independent people, they mature, and when they move on to college, they do very well."

'A Big Ticket'

Mauricio Vasquez was well-known to Mr. Winegar from their time together at South Boston High School.

"Mauricio is from a working-class section of Dorchester that has a serious drug problem,'' Mr. Winegar said. "There is plenty of trouble to get into, if you are looking for it."

"He was never a very strong student until his junior year,'' the headmaster added. "Then he talked his way into a program for college-bound students."

The young man was accepted for admission this year at Northeastern University in Boston, but he deferred enrollment.

"He and I discussed it," Mr. Winegar said. "He really needed a year away from the area. He knew if he entered college this year, he would not make it. We sent him to Bridgton because he can come home from there every other weekend, which satisfies his mother."

Bridgton Academy is unique among boarding schools in the United States in that it serves virtually only postgraduate students. It dropped its lower high-school grades in 1964.

At many boarding schools, the postgraduate students number about 20 to 50 and are generally thrown in with the other high-school students. That means they must follow a set of rules designed to cover students ages 14 to 18.

Mr. Vasquez is one of three Bostonian Project students among Bridgton's 158 students this year. He is taking economics, computers, advanced mathematics, and advanced English. Now, in addition to Northeastern, he is considering applying to Boston University and the College of the Holy Cross

Despite his homesickness, he believes he made the right decision for this year.

"The people I hang out with said, 'Take it, it's a good step,"' he said. "I agree. Now, I am trying to talk a friend of mine into talking with Mr. Winegar about the program. He is sort of in the wrong crowd, and this could help him."

John J. Daley Jr., the dean of students at Bridgton, said the students from the Bostonian Project are the "type who could either be in trouble or in school. But they see that education is a big ticket for them.

The other schools participating in the project this year are: the New Hampton School; the Kents Hill School in Kents Hill, Me.; the Old Mount Hermon School in East Northfield, Mass.; the Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H.; the Tilton School in Tilton, N.H.; the White Mountain School in Littleton, N.H.; the Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Wilbraham, Mass.; and the Winn School in Winchendon, Mass.

Social Adjustment

At the New Hampton School, the only adjustments required for the three students from the Bostonian Project were social, according to Mr. Curren, the multicultural-affairs officer.

"In the first few weeks, every kid wanted to take a trip to a mall," he said. "I think they wanted to see how far we were from civilization."

The school, which is about 100 miles from Boston, has a total of 50 postgraduate students among its student enrollment of 250.

The three students from the Boston program have all received aver age or above-average grades during the first interim reporting period, Mr. Curren said.

"Jerry [Winegar] did a good job of making these kids earn this," he said. "They had to demonstrate they wanted this. These kids have high potential for a Horatio Alger outcome."

The Northfield Mount Hermon School, which has three students from the Bostonian Project, is also home to a similar program for minority students recommended by college-admissions officers.

The referrals come from Ivy League institutions, Stanford University, and the University of Notre Dame, among others, said Pamela L. Shoemaker, director of the transition-year program at the school.

"I get probably 35 referrals for the 14 to 15 spaces we have a year," she said. "These students, if they did not come here, would probably go to a local community college." Mr. Winegar and others involved in the Bostonian Project are now trying to raise funds for the program with the hope of eventually expanding it to serve 100 or more students annually.

Mr. Carter of the nais said the organizers are also working on widening the scope of the program to include colleges that would guarantee admission to participants and businesses that would offer summer jobs to the students during their college years. Several of those interviewed said the idea could be expanded to other cities, although they noted that the majority of postgraduate programs are offered by boarding schools in New England and the Northeast. "The ingredients are progressive schools that value diversity, an imaginative public school, students, and philanthropy," said Mr. Curren. "This is a pretty efficient use of the philanthropic dollar."

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