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Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as For Students of Color, the 'Chance' of a Lifetime

For Students of Color, the 'Chance' of a Lifetime

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On a crisp fall Saturday in this city's affluent Upper East Side, 13-year-old Chris Forde glimpsed a world of new educational opportunities.

At a $17,000-a-year private prep school just off Madison Avenue, the 8th grader from Brooklyn's Middle School 246 spent the morning with recruiters from A Better Chance.

ABC's College Preparatory Program has been opening the doors of competitive schools to academically talented students of color for 35 years. The Boston-based effort had its genesis long before states began experimenting with choice programs that let needy students attend private schools at public expense, and long before millionaire philanthropists started underwriting what have come to be called "privately funded vouchers."

Unlike these more recent efforts, ABC's primary mission is not bestowing scholarships; the participating schools provide the financial aid. What the nationwide organization offers instead is a coveted evaluation that a student is likely to thrive in a more challenging learning environment. It's enough to draw 300 families to this "Interview Day," hosted by New York's private Nightingale-Bamford School.

Here, Chris Forde and the other hopefuls heard ABC alumni who have gone on to become bankers and lawyers explain how the program connected them to a future they say would have been far harder to reach from their neighborhood schools.

At the end of the morning, Chris' mother, Gracelyn Forde, has her fingers tightly crossed. "I would love to expose him to more things than I can show him in Brooklyn," she said.

'Culturally Deprived'

When administrators from 23 of the country's most prominent independent schools met in 1963 to form what would become A Better Chance, their aim was to reach out to more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The organization's trustees later described the goal as "to place culturally deprived students" in private secondary schools so they "may take full advantage of college and graduate school education."

The objective fit well with the civil rights push of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, and the privately formed venture received a substantial part of its funding from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity during the late 1960s.

A Better Chance has since been weaned from federal funding, but support from its 196 participating schools and private philanthropy continues to allow it to place more than 350 children annually. The program, whose alumni now number more than 9,000, got a boost last year when talk-show host and actress Oprah Winfrey donated more than $2.2 million and agreed to serve as its spokeswoman.

Over three decades, ABC's work has created an informal network of individuals from public schools, churches, and boys and girls clubs who put promising students in touch with the organization. Judith B. Griffin, ABC's president for the past 12 years, describes its mission as discovering treasures where others fail to dig.

"We know from years of research that intelligence is equally spread out among racial and gender lines," she said. "So you go into the public schools and the neighborhoods knowing [bright students] are there."

Although the program isn't strictly means tested, one-third of its participants come from families receiving welfare or who are living at or below the poverty line, and almost all attend their ABC schools on full scholarship.

"Where we go looking is in the communities where we are sure to find children who don't have very much," Ms. Griffin said. "The common denominator is that these are bright, capable, motivated children who want to achieve."

Beyond Test Scores

But finding such students takes a more nuanced evaluation than a standardized test, she believes. In fact, a core ABC philosophy is that any assessment using test scores alone as a gatekeeper misses many students who possess the gifts needed to succeed in a rigorous academic program.

Applicants do take the Secondary School Admissions Test, but they also write essays and collect recommendations from adults who can speak to their talents and motivations. On the day of their interviews, candidates meet one-on-one for about 25 minutes with either an admissions officer from a participating school, an ABC alumnus, or one of the program's other volunteers.

Of the approximately 2,300 students who apply each year, about 900 are included in the ABC pool, a little more than a third of whom actually are accepted and wind up attending a participating school.

"The important thing we do is we look at every child who sends us an application as a potential ABC student," Ms. Griffin said. "We look for what about this child is wonderful, and we transmit that to the schools."

The most concrete evidence of the evaluation's success is the performance of the students who go on to participating schools. Many of the college-preparatory schools report that the attrition rates for ABC students are no higher than for the rest of their enrollments.

"These kids have had to achieve under sometimes hostile environments," said Nicole Hager, the assistant dean of students at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass.. "And so even if their scores are not quite as good as other kids', we recognize their potential based on how they write and on how they are recommended."

A large proportion of the students who apply benefit from a supportive parent who has already set his or her child's sights on college. What the ABC experience promises is exposure to expand their horizons.

"When you go to school in New York, going to college means maybe going to City College, so you're limited in scope," said Arnold Principal, who completed the program in 1987. "At my new school, I had classmates who were talking about Stanford and Harvard--schools I probably would not have heard of if I hadn't gone where I did."

Mr. Principal went on to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and he now runs his own asset-management firm. In his case, the better chance came from a suburban public high school in New Canaan, Conn.--one of 24 public systems that now participate in ABC. For such students, a local host family sets up a group home serving a half-dozen or more youngsters. Students who attend private boarding schools live in the school dorms.

'Yale Was a Breeze'

The inclusion of academically rigorous suburban public schools underscores that A Better Chance is not just offering students a different type of school, but an entirely new environment.

The program took Tesha Spann from a South Bronx neighborhood where sounds of gunfire were not uncommon to a world in which students read Shakespeare on the campus lawn. After ABC enabled her to attend Miss Porter's School--an all-girls boarding school in Farmington, Conn.--she went on to earn an Ivy League degree and become a financial analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank in her native New York.

The rigor of Miss Porter's academic program meant, she said, "that going to Yale was a breeze, and the reason is that I was prepared."

Many of this year's applicants got to peek into that new world at the school that hosted the recent interview day. Nightingale-Bamford, an all-girls day school serving about 540 students in grades K-12, boasts four science labs with the latest equipment, dance and ceramics studios, and a rooftop play area for its younger charges.

During the applicants' interviews, many of their mothers and fathers gathered in the school's recently remodeled auditorium where they learned what to expect if their children attend an ABC school, which represents a foreign culture to many. The parents asked how often boarding school students can visit home, who does their children's laundry, and how their kids should dress.

An ABC alumna explained that, to fit in, their children should wear nice clothes, but shouldn't be overly groomed. "When you see the students all together, your children will be out of place if their clothes are all pressed," she tells them.

Program officials stressed that many participants attend school in communities that have little familiarity with minority students and low-income families. But learning to live in such places is part of the education the program provides.

"It's extremely, extremely scary at first," explained Cicely Georges, a Brooklyn native who graduated from a public school in Ridgefield, Conn., in 1992 through ABC. "But you learn to adapt to any environment, and you can deal with any obstacle placed in your path."

A Question of Access

Despite such testimonials, the program raises the same central question posed in the voucher debate: Is it just a "lifeboat" strategy, helping only a handful of talented youths while leaving the majority in a sinking public system? And does its premise send an elitist message that only the most prominent schools can ensure a prosperous future?

Karl Bernstein, a former administrator in the New York City public schools, doesn't see it that way. Having referred many of his own students to A Better Chance before he retired--including Arnold Principal--he still returns each fall as a volunteer interviewer for the program.

"My philosophy is that we have to do the best we can for every child," Mr. Bernstein said. "And if that means sending them out of the city, so be it."

With the help of Oprah Winfrey's recent generosity, in fact, Ms. Griffin wants to expand some of ABC's smaller efforts targeted at minority students who remain in the public schools. Its Pathways to College after-school program, which encourages and prepares students of color to pursue education beyond high school, now operates in just Newark, N.J., and Pine Bluff, Ark., but she hopes to expand it across the country.

Like the College Preparatory Program, the Pathways initiative addresses the cold reality that still persists 35 years after A Better Chance was founded. "Just because of the luck of birth," Ms. Griffin said, "some of us get, and some of us don't."

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Pages 6-7

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