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A Better Chance gives city kids a suburban education

Students from New York City live at the ABC House and attend Glastonbury (Conn.) High School. It's a learning experience for both the students and their host families.

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    Participating students and alumni of A Better Chance gather to celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary. A Better Chance invites New York City students to board in Glastonbury, Conn., and attend high school there.
    Courtesy of A Better Chance
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Each fall high school student scholars arrive in Glastonbury, a central Connecticut town, from New York City to receive A Better Chance (ABC). Part of a national organization that dates back to 1963, the four-year program offers minority students a chance to study at private and public schools across the country.

It’s a leap of faith for everyone involved: for the students who must leave familiar surroundings to attend Glastonbury High School, for their parents must bid them a temporary farewell, and for the host families who often welcome another teenager into an already bustling household.

Participating students rank in the top 10 percent of their class. With encouragement from their teachers and parents, the students apply while in seventh grade. They are accepted into the program based on their academic record, personal motivation, and leadership promise.

“They are so intelligent, mature, and really motivated,” says Bonnie Clark, board president for ABC in Glastonbury, Conn.

Motivation is a key, but so is adaptability.

“It can take some getting used to: For example, there’s no more public transportation, they have to get driven everywhere,” Ms. Clark says. “It’s a culture shock at first. Glastonbury is an upper-middle-class, white town. It’s very different from their homes.”

According to the 2000 US Census, Glastonbury is 93.1 percent white, 1.5 percent African American, 0.15 percent Native American, and 3.4 percent Asian.

Students live at the ABC House on Hebron Avenue, a short walk from Glastonbury High School. A full-time family, cook, and tutor staff the house. They eat dinner together every night before they sign in for a nightly two-hour study hall.

Aside from the focus on academics, ABC students participate in community service activities through local groups such as the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. Some work in the local food pantry, others might rake leaves for an elderly neighbor, Clark says.

“They bring a lot to our town,” Clark says of the students, but “they also have to give back. We hold them to a higher standard. We have a house goal of at least a 3.0 [grade point average].”

Past ABC students have gone on to graduate from colleges and universities such as Case Western Reserve, Wesleyan, Cornell, the University of Connecticut, Dartmouth, Fordham, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Brandon Madden, who grew up in the Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood of New York City, will graduate from the University of Connecticut this spring with an accounting degree.

A Better Chance “was a good experience. I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone; it’s the only way to really grow,” Mr. Madden says.

It wasn’t so much the rural landscape of farms and woods around Glastonbury that surprised Madden. He had been a boy scout in Queens and frequently traveled to visit family in Trinidad. Rather it was the sense of material privilege that he saw.

He grew very close to the other students in the house, as well as his host family, whom he visits frequently.

A Better Chance students pay a stipend of between $200 and $600 a year to participate in the program, which receives no federal or state funding. The program raises between $80,000 and $90,000 a year in operating funds, all from private donations, Clark says.

The ABC students also spend time each week with their host families, most of whom have other children in the high school. The host family acts as the bridge between school, the town, and the ABC house. It’s literally a home away from home: ABC scholars might help with household chores, but they also go to movies with their hosts, and celebrate occasions big and small.

The parents of three children, Tiffany Giuliano and her husband got involved in the program last year.

“I thought it was a great opportunity. It exposes our children to someone who is not from Glastonbury, who doesn’t have the same things and opportunities we do,” says Ms. Giuliano, who grew up in Glastonbury and knew the program from her time in high school.

Their oldest son is now a freshman in college. They’re hosting a student who is a sophomore in high school, the same age as their middle child.

“Randy and our middle son get along fantastic, they just click. It’s like having a fourth child,” Giuliano says, adding that it’s been fun to take Randy to do things he’s never done before, such as apple picking and hay rides.

The students usually go home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, April school vacation, and the summer. Most stay in touch with their host families online and through social media long after they toss their high school graduation caps in the air.

“In the beginning I didn’t know what kind of commitment it was, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to be involved,” Giuliano says. “I treat [Randy] like he’s one of my own children – I’ve already told him he’s not allowed to go further than three hours from away from here for college.”

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