Giving Minority Students a Push Along the Path to Leadership Roles

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 3 19:12:22 UTC 2007

>>From the NYTimes, Jan. 3, 2007

Giving Minority Students a Push Along the Path to Leadership Roles

On a recent cold Saturday, when most children around the city were
relaxing after a week at school, 320 boys and girls, ages 10 to 13, filed
into Nightingale-Bamford, a private girls school in a stately brick
building on the Upper East Side. The children, most black or Hispanic,
were going to be interviewed for a shot at admission to a private day or
boarding school, or an elite suburban public school, through A Better
Chance, a nonprofit group. The boys wore jackets and neckties. The girls
were in prim skirts or nicely pressed trousers. Some were confident, but
many were nervous, folding and unfolding their hands, sitting up extra
straight as they waited to be interviewed. The stakes, after all, were
high. The programs mission is to increase the number of minority men and
women in leadership positions. It is really about social mobility,
whisking children out of their environment in urban neighborhoods and
transporting them to institutions that are incubators for presidents,
senators and titans of industry like Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.,
President Bushs alma mater.

These schools are pathways to influence and power in our society, said
Sandra E. Timmons, the president of the group, pointing out that
Governor-elect Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts, the states first black
governor, is an alumnus of the program. Yet A Better Chance and similar
programs, like the New York City-based Prep for Prep, can only hope to
provide mobility for the few. Most of the children who seek placement will
never get a spot. In 2006, for example, 2,153 students nationwide applied
to A Better Chance; about half passed the screening process, but only 624
children were accepted and 455 enrolled. The others declined their spots,
largely for financial reasons, group officials said. The former president
of the group, Judith Berry Griffin, worried so much about talented
students who had been rejected that she left the organization in 2003 and
established a new nonprofit group, Pathways to College, to help them.

THE fact, she said, is that most public middle schools serving urban youth
simply are not preparing children for academically challenging high
schools, public or private. Even if they were, there are not many seats
available in the elite private schools, or enough scholarship money to
support the students who need financial aid, she said. There are just not
enough places, she said in a telephone interview from her office in
Englewood, N.J. Its like musical chairs. We simply have to come to grips
with the fact that we are throwing away hundreds of thousands of talented
children. We dont even know what talent we are throwing away. Rather than
helping a few students get coveted spots in a few schools, she now tries
to help children in low-performing public high schools, like Barringer in
Newark, get the skills they need to attend college by offering
after-school writing courses and college guidance. My real goal is to
bring about systemic change in the public schools, she said.

Ms. Timmons acknowledged the limitations of her program in being able to
help only a small number of children. But, she said, it still has great
impact because it vaults talented students of color to the highest
echelons of society. At the Nightingale-Bamford school, Kirk Cohall, 10,
waited for his interview with his sister, Shannon, 14, and their parents.
Their mother, Sophia, left her job as a financial analyst to spend more
time with the family; their father, Kirkpatrick, is the senior minister at
the Lenox Road Baptist Church in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Shannon, who was
accepted as A Better Chance scholar last year, is a ninth grader at Poly
Prep Country Day School, a mostly white school in Bay Ridge. Kirk, a fifth
grader in a gifted program at Public School 279, a mostly black school in
Canarsie, is hoping to join his sister there. Kirk and Shannons parents
say the quality of public schools in Canarsie has declined in recent years
as the neighborhood changed from mostly white to mostly black. P.S. 279
still posts high test scores, but it is badly overcrowded. Some children
attend classes in an annex a few blocks away, and some classes are as
large as 32 pupils. Several years ago, the school had a leaky roof and
moldy classroom walls.

David Cantor, a spokesman for the citys Department of Education, said
overcrowding and adequate maintenance were issues citywide, acknowledging
that some classes at P.S. 279 have 32 students. Poly Prep has a 25-acre
campus, protected by a gate. It has a whole building dedicated to the
study of science; one floor has physics labs, another has chemistry labs,
and two floors have biology labs. The school has a professional-looking
theater for student productions. It even has a pond with ducks 262 by one
count. You can sit around the pond and do your homework, Shannon said. It
doesnt look like youre in Brooklyn. Theres grass and trees. Its getting a
breath of fresh air in the middle of the city. But what struck her most is
the class size. There are 10 students in the class and you get lots of
individual attention.

Shannon was also accepted at Bronx High School of Science, but declined
the spot because, her parents said, it was too far from home, and, with
classes of 34 students, too crowded. Her parents pay part of Poly Preps
$27,000 a year tuition, and a scholarship from the school pays the rest.
Shannons father, who has a Ph.D. in education from Fordham University,
said graduates of A Better Chance can be agents for change. We want a
better life for our children, of course, he said. But, he added, Were
teaching them, whatever God wants you to do, you take it to help others.
Mrs. Cohall, who attended public schools in Brooklyn, said she had always
been a proponent of public education, but was worried about the quality of
most public schools in black neighborhoods. The expectations are low and
the resources are limited, she said.

If the playing field were level, we wouldnt need this program, she
continued, referring to A Better Chance. I think these kids are going to
help to level it, Shannons father added.

Clara Hemphill, a guest columnist, is author of New York Citys Best Public
High Schools. Samuel G. Freedman is on vacation.


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