Urban youths get a chance at private school

As the guiding force behind Fidelity's Magellan Fund, Peter Lynch became the most famous and one of the world's most successful investment managers during the 1980s. So what's he doing these days?

Begging for a good cause - a child's cause.

He chairs Boston's Inner-City Scholarship Fund, a nine-year-old charity group that has raised $14 million and helped more than 20,000 disadvantaged youths. But this isn't your typical college-tuition program. It's aimed at younger children. The idea: If you can give students an academic leg up before they drop out of school, they'll have a much better chance of succeeding.

"We have this inherent problem in America that many people won't have a chance," Mr. Lynch says. "They're set to lose it in fourth or fifth or sixth grade," when they drop out. So the fund helps pay private-school tuition for at-risk youths. The rest comes from their parents.

"These are people who have trouble paying the gas bill," he adds. But "there's something magic about paying for school. You tend to care more about it." So far, the students have stuck with it. The dropout rate is a remarkable 2 percent.

Corporations provide a third of the fund's income. So Lynch spends each year hat-in-hand selling the idea to Boston-area companies. "There's a self-interest here," he says. If corporations invest in children early on, they and society can avoid the costs of welfare and prison later on.

A recent survey of research tends to support that contention. According to University of Chicago economist Pete Klenow, intensive preschool programs cost about $12,400 a child but yield $95,646 in benefits from higher earnings (thus more tax revenue) and lower social costs.

The program is somewhat controversial because it pulls children out of public schools to place them in mostly parochial institutions. But it is catching on. The Boston program was inspired by a New York effort. Now, it's being picked up by Washington, D.C.

"We feel the focus needs to be on the kids, not the politics," says Albert Lord, chief executive at Sallie Mae and chairman of School Night, Washington's annual fund-raiser for private-school tuition.

"The whole idea has a lot of appeal to companies, to their leaders, and they're being very generous," he says.

At this year's fund-raiser, to be held later this month, Mr. Lord hopes to raise $3 million. Back in Boston, Lynch is looking for $3.8 million.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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