Poorer families seek options in schooling bright children. New York academy reserved for nonelite

Hands flap and wrists wriggle as the students try to capture their teachers' attention. The topic is the recent presidential election, and the discussion at this private middle school is lively and savvy. But De La Salle Academy is not an ordinary private school. These kids do not come from ``privileged'' homes. One-third of the children come from families with $10,000 or less annual income. Over 40 percent come from single-parent families. Only two pay full tuition.

The discussion is peppered with questions from both students and the two teachers leading it. Why didn't people vote? Did the candidates make the issues clear? Did the media have an adverse effect? And if, as George Bush says, ``the people spoke'' in electing him President, who are those people?

``The people!'' says one student with a bit of a harumph. She quotes from a New York Times exit poll: 63 percent of white men and 56 percent of white women voted for Mr. Bush; black men gave him only 15 percent, and black women came in at a low 9 percent.

``Whose people?'' she asks.

In New York City, if you are poor or even middle class, and have a gifted child, it is hard to provide a good learning environment. Public schools do not always challenge bright students. You might live in an apartment that has little room for quiet study. Neighborhood stoops might not provide refuge from drug dealing and crime. And the expense of a private school education may put it out of reach.

Although there are some public school programs for talented and gifted students, many parents are still unsatisfied and are looking for alternatives.

De La Salle, the rebirth of a parochial school of the 1960s for gifted city children, is now an independent school and is an example of such an alternative. It began more than two decades ago when some parochial school teachers noticed that their brightest elementary school children often ended up high school drop-outs. A study found that many failed, in part, because of their earlier successes.

``The bright kids would pick up the information the first time, and then they were bored,'' says Lynne Harwell, a development counselor at De La Salle. ``They rarely had to study, and they were rewarded by being tutors or hall monitors. But they weren't learning to read and process information. When they got to high school, ... they didn't know how to study.''

This is the group that De La Salle targets - academically talented sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. ``We tend to get kids who act out and cut up,'' says Ms. Harwell. ``They are very charming. They have been able to get over and get by. But they haven't worked very hard.''

Children are referred to this now private school from different sources. Some come from homes that have sought out quality education for their children. Others have been referred by teachers who have recognized students with outstanding academic abilities.

Omar Edwards' mother, a secretary at a New York City hospital, heard about the special school from her boss.

``I knew I had to get him out of public school,'' says Maria Edwards, who is attending night classes to get her college degree. She was disturbed by problems in the public schools, including the specter of drugs. ``Private school was not really in my dreams, because we could not pay.''

The Edwards pay a portion of Omar's tuition at De La Salle; the school's financial aid program takes care of the rest. But Mrs. Edwards is worried about whether the family will be able to pay prep school tuition for Omar, who will enter high school next year. The number of applications for financial aid at some private schools she has visited is high, she says, and there are no guarantees that they will get as much help as they need - if any.

``For us down here, it's so difficult,'' she says, referring to her family income.

Greg Coleman's parents are not poor, but they ``don't make enough to be considered rich, either,'' says his father. The Colemans were simply looking for the most appropriate education for their son, who had skipped one grade in a parochial school, and was about to skip another. There was a public magnet school nearby, run by the New York City schools, but the Colemans did not like the atmosphere and did not think the public school would be challenging enough for their son. Then they found De La Salle.

Dorine Watson didn't like the public school system, either, where her daughter was in a talented and gifted program. Mrs. Watson was concerned about what she saw as a lack of seriousness about education among many public school students. Teachers at that school recommended that Dayla apply to De La Salle. ``It was a great chance, and we grabbed it,'' says Watson.

One-third of De La Salle's graduates are now in private high schools. The rest are in parochial schools or, in a few cases, specialized public high schools. Principal Brian Carty, a Catholic brother, encourages his students, most of whom are black and Hispanic, to attend private schools.

``These children are not experienced in walking shoulder to shoulder'' with the white world, he says. By providing students with more individual attention and a top-quality education, these schools help boost their confidence and experience.

But Brother Brian also emphasizes his students' commitment to their own community, so that higher education does not merely means escape from the inner-city.

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