Film Subject’s Notoriety Upsets Scholarship Program

By Mark Walsh — March 27, 1991 4 min read

3 The media attention prompted by the tragic slaying of Edmund Perry in 1985 remains unsettling to officials of A Better Chance, a 28-year-old scholarship program that places disadvantaged minority youths in independent schools.

Mr. Perry, a black student from Harlem who attended Phillips Exeter Academy under the abc program, was shot to death by an undercover New York City police officer he allegedly was trying to rob, just 10 days after his graduation from the respected New Hampshire preparatory school.

Since then, officials of the Boston-based program maintain, some have used the incident to question the efficacy of efforts to bridge the cultural gap between low-income minority students and the country’s most selective private schools.3

“The story of Edmund Perry is one viewpoint, but to make this single student’s life representative of abc students or prep students of color over 3years is not giving this subject the in-depth attention it deserves,” said Judith B. Griffin, president of A Better Chance.

Like officials of Phillips Exeter, Ms. Griffin has conveyed to NBC-tv her reservations about the network’s upcoming movie version of the Edmund Perry story. (See related story on page 1.)

“I’m not trying to stop the film,” she said. “But let’s put it in perspective.” Coincidentally, a book just published by Yale University Press looks at some of the early participants in A Better Chance and gives the program high marks for increasing minority opportunity.

The abc program was founded in 1963 by 16 independent schools, with private and foundation assistance, to provide private-school opportunities to underprivileged minority children and to help diversify the student enrollments of the participating institutions.0

The program currently enrolls about 1,100 students, with about 60 percent going to independent boarding schools, 30 percent to independent day schools, and about 10 percent to public schools in higher-income communities, according to abc officials.0

More than 96 percent of the 7,000-plus abc graduates have gone on to college, Ms. Griffin said.

Book Was Critical

Much of Ms. Griffin’s concern about the NBC movie, which has been filmed but does not yet have an airH date, goes back to the 1987 book on which it is based, Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry, by Robert Sam Anson. In one passage in the original edition, Mr. Anson was harsh in describing what he viewed as a decline in the abc program stemming from changes in direction and management.0

Officials of A Better Chance took issue with the book, arguing that Mr. Anson was factually inaccurate on several points and that he paint ed a distorted picture of the proL gram. After extensive communica tions between abc officials and the book’s publisher, Random House, several references to the program were revised in later editions.

Ms. Griffin said the program, which relies on private donors, has suffered financially since the book was published. She has written sev eral letters to the producers of the television film to express her fear that the movie version will amplify this damage.0

“The most damaging effect of Best Intentions is insidiously subtle,” she wrote earlier this year to Leonard Hill, an executive producer of the movie. “Rather than treating this story as the aberration it clearly is, the book instead leaves the reader with the sense that Edmund’s diffi culties are a metaphor for the lives children of color can be expected to lead when they dare to transcend class, race, and economic boundaries by attending college-preparatory schools.’'

Ms. Griffin requested that a state ment be added to the movie to indi cate that Edmund Perry’s story was not typical of abc students as a group. The request was denied.

Mr. Hill said in letters back to Ms. Griffin and in an interview last week that he did not see the Perry story as an aberration.

The producer wrote to Ms. Griffin: “There is a complex and persistent pattern of alienation and separation which is reflected in the experiences of the great majority of minority stu dents who attend both high-level prep schools and Ivy League colleges."0

Students ‘Well Served’ (

But that assertion may be disputed by the new study of the program, Blacks in the White Establishment? A Study of Race and Class in America, which looks at early abc students and how they have fared.

The program has been largely suc cessful in its primary goal of opening doors of opportunity for black youths from inner-city ghettos, conclude the authors, Richard L. Zweigenhaft, a professor of psychology at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., and G. William Domhoff, professor of psyL chology and sociology at the Universi ty of California at Santa Cruz.

“Although there have been trage dies, and there have been those for whom the program did not work,” the authors write, “the large majority of students who went through the pro gram in its early years were well served and emerged not only well educated but psychologically intact.”

The authors document many of the difficulties that abc particiL pants faced at their preparatory chools, but they found that most flourished academically and socially and went on to become members of the growing black middle class.

Nonetheless, they acknowledge what perhaps one-third of the stu dents in their sample could be de scribed as “hidden abc-ers"--stu dents who did not turn out to be “stars” or successful middle-class professionals. These students did not necessarily turn out to be per sonal or professional failures, the authors write, but they “feel they have not lived up to expectations.” The authors note that their sample was small because abc did not coop erate with their efforts and declined to provide lists of early graduates.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Film Subject’s Notoriety Upsets Scholarship Program