NEW YORK — Looking back, Courtney Holland can't decide if he was more excited or scared when he packed up his newly purchased button-down shirts and chinos, said goodbye to his friends, and left Brooklyn for a long drive north.
Courtney was headed for St. Paul's School, a prestigious boarding academy tucked away in the New Hampshire woods, where he would enter the ninth grade.
"I was nervous," admits the young man, now a year older and a few inches taller. "But the kids up there were a lot nicer and more friendly than I expected. It was just strange that I couldn't wear jeans every day."
Courtney's experience is an endearing tale but not a unique one. For the past 40 years, the Wadleigh Scholars Program, an educational scholarship initiative based in Harlem, has allowed more than 500 children like Courtney to attend private schools inside and outside the city.
Students must first apply to the selective program, then enroll in special classes aimed at preparing them for admission to some of the nation's most demanding private schools. Once admitted, the schools - most of which are eager to add more racial, ethnic, and economic diversify to their student bases - offer full or partial scholarships to the Wadleigh students.
Such programs are fairly common today, but they were not 40 years ago. The Wadleigh program - one of the first to create a systematic connection between the nation's inner cities and its elite prep schools - has served as a grandfather of the movement, and has since inspired many similar programs throughout New York City and the nation.
"The Wadleigh Scholars Program takes students, grooms and cultivates them, and in turn gives them the self-esteem needed to succeed in the world," says Nurceal Griffith McQueen, a Wadleigh alumnus.
The program started in 1964 as the dream of Edouard Plummer, then a guidance counselor and math teacher at the Wadleigh Junior High School, a public school in Harlem. Mr. Plummer noticed a terrible scarcity of low-income, black, and Latino students from the Harlem neighborhood, especially boys, attending preparatory schools, and subsequently, elite colleges.
The program, which is coed, has sent students on to Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and many Wadleigh alumni are now doctors, journalists, and CEOs.
An entrance into this privileged academic world has not always been an alternative for urban, minority youths. Students growing up in low-income neighborhoods are often exposed to drug use and dealing, gang wars, and teen parenthood, all of which impede their advancement into higher education.
"Mr. Plummer knew a long time ago, before anyone else really, that he had to remove kids from the distraction of the city, from the life of crime and poverty that so many people fall into," explains the mother of one Wadleigh scholar. Her son was granted scholarships through the program to help him graduate from the Brooks School and then attend Howard University, where he currently studies architecture.
Today, there are an estimated 10,000 similar programs similar to the Wadleigh Scholarship Program in New York City alone. Within these programs, many acknowledge the inspiration they found in Plummer's original vision.
Richard Murphy recalls how Plummer's tenacity motivated him, in part, to found the Rheedlen Center, a comprehensive Harlem social services project, in 1970.
"He showed that there were kids of extremely high quality in this neighborhood. He was an example that there could be great teachers finding great students, even under strenuous circumstances," says Mr. Murphy.
The Wadleigh scholars have tended to reflect the ethnic makeup of their neighborhoods. Many of the students are African-American, Latino, and Asian. As the program has grown over the years, Wadleigh scholars now hail from all five New York boroughs and New Jersey.
Wadleigh Scholars is affiliated with A Better Chance, a national effort by private schools to recruit more minority students. "Boarding schools have changed tremendously in the past 40 years," says Steve Ruzicka, executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools in Washington, D.C. "I think that this type of recruiting of minority and low-income students is phenomenal because worlds and perspectives are being broadened, both for new students coming into the school and for the students who are already there."
The Wadleigh Scholars Program differs from many others in that it accepts no government funding. The program relies solely on private donations to subsidize the children's additional education and the financial assistance they so often rely on to attend pricey prep schools and private colleges, where yearly tuition bills are often as high as $36,000 a year.
At times, some of the funding for the Wadleigh Scholars has come out of Plummer's own pocket. He recalls paying for suits for interviews or treating a group of youngsters to a Broadway play.
But the goals of the Wadleigh Scholars Program have also come in for their share of criticism. Some local residents disapprove of the program because they feel it encourages bright, high-achieving children to leave their urban neighborhoods, often permanently.
Plummer recalls being called a "racist" and an "Uncle Tom" and being accused of trying to destroy the black community. He attributes community members' criticism to longstanding and long-endured racism toward African-Americans.
"I'm black, and they're black, and because of that, some people still think we can't succeed," Plummer says emphatically, tears welling up in his eyes.
But most Wadleigh alumni defend the program's objective of removing youths and educating them in different locales. "To be frank, one of the reasons this program is so successful is because it takes children away from the influences of urban areas," explains Wadleigh graduate Michael Keith. "There is just too great of a pull from drugs and gangs and other forces that tempts kids."
Mr. Keith is one of the many Wadleigh alums who have moved far beyond the impoverished neighborhood he grew up in. Keith graduated from the Lawrenceville School and then Colgate University. After time in the Marine Corps, he is now an associate at the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
A key element of the Wadleigh program is sharing the success earned by its alumni with younger students new to the program.
"Everyone involved in Wadleigh Scholars is like family," says alumnus Derrick Wallace, a Bucknell University graduate and vice-president of a major bank. "The older alumni, like myself, have realized that it's time to reach back to the community and give back so much of what Mr. Plummer and others gave us."
Mr. Wallace and other local Wadleigh graduates now serve as volunteer mentors to current Wadleigh scholars. The mentors offer advice in addition to helping teach Saturday morning classes that prepare the young scholars for the rigorous academic challenges they will face.
Such classes are needed because the area's public junior and senior high schools do not offer enough education and exposure to students, Plummer explains.
"I saw too many children leaving the schools, or even staying in the public school system, and going down the drain.... I couldn't have done enough for these students," he says.