Academic Boost for City Kids

Urban Scholars program helps youths achieve goals

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MIGUEL MONTESINO says he once believed his future lay in a blue-collar job, like the one his father got after dropping out of school long ago.

While Miguel was at South Boston High School, his father showed him his hands: strong, yet worn. "Look at what labor does to you," he said. Miguel looked, listened. The message was clear: Stay in school.

The teenager's friends, meanwhile, were skipping classes and stealing cars. Miguel didn't like this destructive path, nor was he satisfied making $4 an hour at his summer dry-cleaner's job. So he applied himself in school, making the honor roll just months later. This fall, he will graduate from the University of Lowell (Mass.) with a degree in criminal justice. Then, he hopes, it will be on to law school, he says by telephone from Lowell. Inner-city teens targeted

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But for Miguel, this would not have been possible without his school's college-preparatory, after-school and summer program, "Urban Scholars," held at the Boston Harbor campus of the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Founded in 1982, it is a nationally lauded academic program for disadvantaged, inner-city pupils at South Boston, Dorchester, and Jeremiah E. Burke High Schools, and 10 feeder middle schools.

Urban Scholars provides more than an academic focus. It also offers an emotional component just as important for a student's self-esteem. "It is a rigorous, challenging program that really does stretch the kids, but that also gives them nurturing support to make the leap to college," says Pat O'Connell Ross, director of the United States Department of Education's Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Program.

As part of a three-year $840,000 grant from the Javits program, the Urban Scholars model was replicated last spring at San Francisco State University, the University of Central Florida, and New York's City College.

Financial aid for the Boston program comes from the Javits grant, UMass, Massachusetts Board of Regents' Ronald E. McNair Educational Opportunity Program, state grants, and corporate donations. This year five scholarships for amounts up to $1,500 were given to graduates, 75 percent of whom qualify for full college financial aid, says program director Joan Becker.

Outside Ms. Becker's UMass office, students at long tables noisily confer over math problems. Nontraditional classes are under way in rooms located across a walkway.

In one, Paulette Johnson leads a discussion about putting on a career symposium. She asks boys and girls to describe what they want to do for a job, and how they can convey that career choice to their fellow students. One teenager, Francisco, says: "An FBI agent. I want to be fluent in many languages and go to law school." Another adds: "A mechanical engineer in Japan. I will study hard, research, and learn the language and culture." A welcome educational answer

Becker says the program is a needed outlet at a difficult time for Boston schools. "There are not enough books. Course offerings are limited; classes are getting bigger. Kids can't do much work because teachers can't respond to it."

In this context, Urban Scholars offers something extra. Courses taught during fall and spring include Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) Preparation, Computers, and Math Problem-Solving. After completing course requirements and Intensive Grammar Review, a student may take college classes such as Physics and Calculus.

Winter semester focuses on group projects like putting out a student newspaper or preparing for a World Trade Center conference. In summer, pupils pursue a theme-based curriculum such as America at the Crossroads: A Socioeconomic Perspective. Students take workshops on social issues, volunteer at a food bank, study at area universities, or do internships. Middle schoolers take math, science, a guidance course, and go on field trips.

Teachers at the three high schools are also included. At a UMass summer institute, university staff teach new methodologies and lead courses for them such as Lifeline Theater, and American Immigration.

Whether program graduates enroll at UMass - where they are guaranteed admission - or elsewhere, all have sought a college education. Some go to graduate school, and one returned to UMass to teach.

The program stresses good study habits so pupils can stay in college. The effort is paying off: Their college-retention rate is 88 percent, compared with a national rate of 50 percent and a city rate of 30 percent.

Another key program element is improving the three high schools. "We have a skeleton staff: one guidance counselor for 750 students. The [program's] staff doesn't just [teach] these kids, they help us with our restructuring goals and they chair subcommittees" for achievement and attendance ceremonies, says Kathleen Flannery, Burke's assistant headmaster.

Urban Scholars was founded by Charles Desmond, vice chancellor of student affairs at UMass/Boston, as a complement to "Upward Bound," the federally funded program he directed in the 1970s for average high school students. Urban Scholars was originally aimed at 15 top students. The middle-school program was added in 1987. Today, 75 high schoolers and 25 middle schoolers are served; more than 250 have graduated from the program. Not popular at first

Urban Scholars hasn't always been successful, however. At first, students were reluctant to take on more schoolwork; parents weren't happy about the time commitment; and, worst of all, teachers didn't think there was any student talent. One department head told Becker: "Scholars? You must be kidding."

"Now we have waiting lists," says Becker, who holds a master's degree in education from Harvard. She worked for Upward Bound as a Wellesley College student and, with Leroy Romero, a former human-resources specialist at the Boston Company, created the scholars curriculum under Dr. Desmond's guidance.

Urban Scholars students get $25 yearly for going to class, $25 more for being tutored or doing homework in the program's office, and $800 for attending summer session. Offering disadvantaged students a stipend for pursuing an after-school academic program is not unusual, says the Javits program's Ms. Ross. "These are not middle-class kids. They need to make money," she says.

"Urban Scholars helps you open up and find the true you," says Stephanie Morrison, an alumna now at Oberlin College. "Without it, I'd probably be at a community college. Now I want to go into corporate law and own my own computer firm. I probably would never have mountain climbed or skied without it."

Robert Outerbridge Jr. stayed at South Boston High instead of switching to a private Catholic school for one reason only: Urban Scholars. "If you're motivated, you can get a better education here," he says. The program has probed his mind on issues such as racial integration, and has guided his search for information about becoming an astronaut. He has revived UMass's astronomy club, and now plans to take an astronomy class at the university.

Miguel, who Becker says could very well have become another dropout statistic, concludes: "I wanted to prove that I could do it. Nothing is impossible."

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