For minorities, prep-school access

NOW in its 20th year, A Better Chance Inc. (ABC) helps to place gifted minority students in some 170 of the nation's most prestigious private and public secondary schools. ABC, a national program, is headquartered in Boston.

In 1964, representatives of a group of private schools formed ABC as a means of increasing their enrollment of minority students.''The educational system has not provided equal access (to independent schools) to all students,'' says Judith Berry Griffin, ABC's president. ''That is why ABC is necessary at this point, and was even more necessary 20 years ago.''

John C. Esty Jr., president of the National Association of Independent Schools, describes ABC as one of ''the . . . greatest contributions of independent schools to education in the 20th century.''

Although it began during the Johnson administration with Great Society funds, ABC is financed today solely by private corporate and foundation gifts, one of few Great Society programs to have survived and flourished. This year has been its most lucrative, with 52 foundations and 131 corporations contributing more than $1 million (including substantial gifts from the Astor and Mellon Foundations).

During its 20 years, ABC has moved more than 5,000 minority students through its program to graduation from some of the country's finest schools, and an extraordinary 98 percent of them have furthered their education at the college and graduate levels. At present, 1,599 students are in the program, 186 of whom attend public schools and 1,403 private (day and boarding) schools.

ABC students are predominantly black and Hispanic. All of them come from inner-city public schools. Most enter the program as freshmen or sophomores. Because it receives more than four times as many applications as it can accept, ABC's standards are very high.

To be considered for admission, a student must demonstrate a desire and motivation to achieve and must be in the top 10 percent of his or her current class, have maintained a B average or better, and test at or preferably above grade level in reading and math.

In addition to academic requirements, these 13- and 14-year-olds must exhibit an exceptional degree of maturity and independence. Most of the students will be leaving home for the first time to attend boarding school or to live in specially provided homes in their host communities.

The most frequent criticism of ABC is one of elitism - that it takes the brightest minority children from their city schools and singles them out for this ''better education,'' while others are left behind to receive an inferior education.

William Bolden, ABC coordinator at the Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, says, ''I reject that. The fact that certain students of academic ability are identified and given the opportunity to compete should not be a disadvantage to the public schools; it should give them the opportunity to give more attention to the students they do have.'' Beverly Wardlaw, ABC coordinator at the Harvard School in Los Angeles, notes, ''We're dealing with people who will be leaders of our country.It is important that they be given the best opportunity possible.''

Saul Romo, an ABC student at the Harvard School, who will be attending Princeton in the fall, puts it a little differently: ''You get a taste of the 'good stuff,' and sooner or later you want a chunk of it.''

Today ABC is moving confidently into its third decade of helping students like Saul find the ''good stuff.''

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