(MS)2: It's tough, it's intense – and kids love it

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a child, Kristina Halona grew up without running water or electricity on a New Mexico Navajo reservation. But she had big dreams: inspired by the Air Force jets that raced over the desert landscape, she set her sights on the science of space exploration.

Today, Ms. Halona helps develop satellites as an aerospace engineer. It's a leap that was made possible, the young college graduate says, by spending her high school summers hard at work in classrooms thousands of miles from her Southwestern home.

Halona was in ninth grade when she first traveled to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. For a quarter-century now, the school's Math and Science for Minority Students – (MS)2 – program has brought public high school students from inner cities and reservations to this leafy campus just north of Boston. Over three consecutive summers, they pack in whole years' worth of courses like physics, calculus, and English – giving kids a taste of college life while helping them develop the confidence and skills to succeed there.

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Virtually all the program's graduates go on to college. And when alumni returned to campus this month to celebrate (MS)2's 25th anniversary, they came back as doctors, engineers, and other professionals.

Ted Sizer, a former Phillips Academy headmaster who helped launch (MS)2, says he couldn't have anticipated its success. Indeed, many alumni called it the best experience in their lives - their first chance to meet so many equally bright kids from similar backgrounds.

"Going to a place like that and learning opens yours eyes," says Halona, who graduated from the program in 1995.

Few though, ever claim it was easy.

At this academic boot camp, students spend five hours in class or labs and just as much time doing homework six days a week. They take more classes than other Phillips Academy summer-session students, and must get a higher minimum grade to pass.

Such rigor is no accident, says program director Temba Maqubela. He knows what it means to surmount a challenge: A youth apartheid leader in his native South Africa, he was forced to leave and arrived in the US homeless, eventually becoming a chemistry teacher at Phillips Academy. "We want them to walk onto a campus with confidence and feel they belong, that they want and deserve it all, not that they're being done a favor," he says.

In class, Mr. Maqubela gently throws chalk at students who fall asleep and admits to having given "the test from hell." After spending a half hour explaining their test answers on the board, several students moan when he tells the class to retake the test again that night.

Maqubela says he tries to teach them life skills less easy to learn than the periodical table, such as organizing their time, the loneliness of studying, and the discipline of learning by repetition. And at a weekly meeting, he reminds them that their presence is a privilege – not a right. Some 200 students apply for the program, which is funded mostly by donations. Only 35 are accepted.

They bring a range of family and financial hardships. One applicant saw a parent shot to death by the other parent. Many depend on public assistance.

For students used to excelling without studying much, (MS)2 can be both a rude and pleasant awakening. "It's nice here to be able to think," says Ashleigh Eldemire, a first-year student from a Boston high school, where she says one teacher often fell asleep during class. "Here you want to work hard and get good grades. It's fun."

Still, adjusting to campus life can be as jolting as the class work. Many students arrive at this school of colonial brick buildings spread among wide lawns having rarely left their urban neighborhoods or rural reservations. Xavier Del Rosario of Harlem says it was so quiet his first night, he just couldn't sleep. Cassandra Toledo says she's used to silence on the Jemez Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, but had never met an African-American. "This is a big culture shock to me," she comments.

(MS)2 students learned about each other's backgrounds by preparing skits during their second weekend together. A band composed of African-American students played a song by jazz musician John Coltrane. Native American students donned traditional garb to dance. "We try to get them to understand there's diversity within the diversity," Maqubela says.

And while their classes are held separately from other summer-session courses, they share dorms, eat cookies, and drink milk with all students on campus after morning classes, and play sports together each afternoon.

With a week left in the program, Xavier says he doesn't want to go home but won't necessarily mind showing off what he learned here. "You feel good when you know more than everyone in the class," he says.

Douglas Tyson, a science teacher from a Washington public school, says (MS)2 students return energized. "They come back with an infectious enthusiasm for academics," says Mr. Tyson, who has helped some two dozen students successfully apply. They also come back more confident, knowing they aren't alone. "It dispels any motion that it's acting white to be smart or to want to achieve or take books home," Tyson says.

By the third summer, the students' focus shifts ahead. They take a college-planning course and once a week visit top colleges including Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth.

Roy Adams, was unsure about where to go to college as a third-year (MS)2 student in 1995. The guidance counselor at his Bronx high school suggested a New York state school. Adams says he couldn't think of any better alternatives. But one day, one of the (MS)2 teachers stopped him and said, "Roy, you should think about Yale."

He wound up there, majoring in economics and playing football. He also convinced several friends who had never thought of Ivy League schools to apply, too.

"I started seeing the potential in me," says Adams who now works as a vice president at a financial-services firm. "It really broadened my horizons and introduced met to a whole world I was not privy to as a young kid growing up in the Bronx."

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