Low-Income Students Meet Prep-School Life

Leaving familiar turf for a radically different academic and social experience can be a challenge - yet many kids thrive

Any 14-year-old setting off for one of America's most academically rigorous boarding schools might well have a case of the jitters. But Sheila Adams's discomfort was more intense than most.

Until leaving for Choate-Rosemary Hall this fall, Sheila knew little of the world outside of her family's apartment and the Harlem neighborhood where she had grown up. So it's not surprising that on her first day as a scholarship student at the prestigious boarding school in Wallingford, Conn., she took a long look around and felt overwhelmed. For a moment, she says, "It was all just too much." On top of that, she just plain missed her mother.

Yet Sheila not only stayed but put in a strong academic performance and made close friends. Within months, she was elected president of the freshman class.

It's a story that shouldn't surprise anyone, say some who work with low-income minority students on scholarship at elite prep schools.

Each year, a few hundred students in New York City alone pull themselves away from neighborhood schools and childhood friends. They head off to boarding school or take on a lengthy daily commute to a private day school.

The majority are bright students who catch the attention of a teacher or guidance counselor. Sometimes their high standardized-test scores attract the notice of groups that place such students with an eye to opening doors and helping pricey private schools establish racial and economic diversity.

The challenges can be daunting. Students are thrust into an unfamiliar atmosphere, and academic demands can far outstrip anything they've experienced. Social differences can also be overwhelming, prompting some students to drop out. Yet while many struggle at the outset, those who stick it out often excel.

At Manhattan's exclusive all-girl Brearley School, former scholarship student Josephine Noble is remembered with both affection and admiration. Ms. Noble, now a junior at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., left her home in a tough New York neighborhood before dawn every day for a lengthy subway trip to Brearley, located in one of the wealthiest sections of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Noble started at Brearley as a seventh- grader and continued through her senior year, when she was offered a scholarship to Harvard.

In the interim, she learned to cope with an abusive father, the loss of her mother, and the responsibility for caring for her younger brothers and sisters.

While Noble never spoke of her family experiences in class, literature teacher Susan Sagor says the depth of her experience gave her a strength and grace unusual in one so young. "To have a student such as Josephine with the maturity her life demanded from her of course gave a different cast to class discussions."

In addition, says Sagor, "Her peers adored her. Those close to her knew she had responsibilities they did not and that was inspirational and set a tone."

Noble insists that she was only one of a number of exceptional girls at Brearley - which she says she loved. But, she admits, "My presence there gave my friends a sense of the bigger picture."

Aileen Hefferren, director of development for New York-based Prep for Prep, a nonprofit group which matches gifted public-school students to scholarships at prestigious private schools, says that groups like hers seek out a particular type of child.

"We look for kids who are bright, highly motivated, driven, and full of intellectual excitement," she says.

In the case of Prep for Prep, students also agree to a 14-month preparation period (see story, below). In most cases, they have ongoing counseling once school starts that allows kids to report on academic progress and sort out feelings about being plunged into a radically new world.

Some kids don't get through. "This doesn't happen for everybody," says Jacqueline Pelzer, executive director of Early Steps, which places minority kindergartners and first-graders. "There are kids - and sometimes it's more their parents - so consumed by the differences in socioeconomic background that they can't get past them."

Samantha Figueroa, who works for Prep for Prep as a post-placement counselor, says academic adjustment is the lesser issue. "It's more the social challenges," she says. "It can be a very isolating experience." Yet, she adds, "I'm amazed by the adaptive qualities of the kids." Many of them "are real leaders."

Frankie Cruz, now a Princeton University grad planning a career in politics, attended both a Manhattan prep school and Connecticut's Hotchkiss School on full scholarships. At times, he says, curiosity and insensitivity about his life in public housing in the south Bronx hurt. He remembers questions: "Are you in a gang?" and "Do you carry a knife?" and the comment, "You're one of the good Puerto Ricans."

Such misunderstandings, he says, pushed him harder to succeed, both academically and on Hotchkiss's wrestling team.

Now, he says, he knows what his presence gave the school. His classmates occasionally visited his home. "It was a kick for them to have Puerto Rican food and to talk Spanish to my mom," he says. They also had a chance to see that his neighbors were "normal families trying to get along. You can't underestimate what it meant for them to see that."

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