Summer students find the world at their doorstep

At first glance, it could seem as if the students spending this summer on the bucolic campus of Phillips Exeter Academy have little in common.

Some, after all, are right at home in the major cities of Europe. Others have rarely set foot outside a native-American reservation. Some attend prosperous schools fueled by America's high-tech boom, while others negotiate daily the halls of struggling inner-city schools.

But these teens are drawn to Exeter's high-powered, New Hampshire classrooms by a shared goal: the desire to excel. And for five weeks, the venerable, 219-year-old school pushes them to test the limits of their interests and abilities in ways many have never experienced before.

A number of New England's elite prep schools throw open their doors each summer to top-performing students from all walks of life and from families who range from needing full scholarships to being able easily to foot the tuition of several thousand dollars. And together, these students turn once highly exclusive campuses into scenes that rival the diversity of a United Nations assembly.

Yet despite the range of socioeconomic and national backgrounds, there's a strong sense of equality and camaraderie as the students negotiate what for many will be an academically transforming summer - even if it's a tough adjustment at first.

When high-schoolers first arrive, there can be a "sense of anxiety" amid the tough classes, new acquaintances, and around-the-clock activity, says Russell Weatherspoon, who has taught at Exeter for 12 years. "Coming here for many of them is nothing short of culture shock."

But the new experiences leave many students energized about their studies - and the possibilities for the future.

For Megan Wilbert, a junior from Seattle, it means discussing "Girl, Interrupted," a book by Susanna Kaysen that details a young woman's struggle with mental illness, with students from Ethiopia, Italy, Turkey, and all corners of the United States.

They sit around a wooden oval "Harkness" table in Mr. Weatherspoon's psychology class. The tables were donated in the 1930s to encourage smaller class sizes and more discussion. Students learn quickly that they are expected to know the material before they walk into class. Active participation and debate is a given.

To Megan, it's a welcome complement to her private school. "I love it here that it's so conversational," she says after class. "It feels like we're all more equal. It's easier to go up to people and ask them about themselves. You meet someone in the laundromat from Saudi Arabia and on your way back, you talk with someone from Switzerland."

Exeter's program draws close to 600 students from 35 states and 34 foreign countries, says director Hobart Hardej. Students are encouraged to take classes they wouldn't normally be able to take - anything from Japanese to marine biology to jazz - in classes no larger than 12, he adds. Though the summer is rigorous, students usually don't receive course credit, and the emphasis is on learning solely for enrichment.

That's also the case at other programs. "This becomes a life-changing experience," says Nancy Miller, associate director of the competitive summer-school program at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prep school in Wallingford, Conn., which offers a program similar to Exeter's. "It's one thing to be the cream of the crop, but it's another thing for a student ... to say 'I really can compete at a very selective level.' "

Indeed, the competition to get into these programs can be intense. At Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, applicants for the five-week "Math and Science for Minority Students" (MS 2) must interview with a recruiter and take a 45-minute math test.

"Of 197 applications, 37 were admitted" this past summer, says Dr. J. Peter Watt, interim director of MS2. The Andover program is a three-summer commitment aimed at giving rigorous preparation to low-income minority students who attend public school and are interested in math and science careers.

Yara Perez, who lives in Spanish Harlem in New York, just finished her third summer there.

At first, the soon-to-be senior says, "It was so horrible. We had to wake up really early for our morning meeting at 7:15 a.m." Classes ran for five hours each day. After dinner, she attended a two-hour study hall and often stayed up past midnight working.

But the end result was rewarding. "When I came back, I was ahead of other students. I learned how to manage my time," she says, adding that she wants to attend the University of Pennsylvania. About 97 percent of MS2 grads go on to college, Mr. Watt says, often to Ivy Leagues and as math or science majors.

As much as the students gain ground academically, they also learn about finding common ground with people whose taste in everything from food to music to clothing can be dramatically different.

"They say, 'OK, I'm living with a girl from Turkey and a girl from the Dominican Republic, [but] we all love Britney Spears.' There's a commonality of teenage experience," says Ms. Miller of Choate.

For Jaime Werito, a native American from Tsaile, Ariz., who is attending Exeter, it meant bridging differences with his African-American roommate from New York's Queens neighborhood. "It was very awkward at first," he says. "but eventually we turned out to be friends."

Though Jaime lives on an Indian reservation, many students at summer prep-school programs come from inner cities. The Memphis Partners and Memphis Rotary Club in Tennessee, for instance, send more than 50 students in the area to Eastern schools each year, says Ethan Porter of Memphis Partners Inc.

"When they first get into the idea of it, they are somewhat scared," Mr. Porter says. "A lot have never left the state. They're used to spending summers working or goofing off. But ... they come back realizing that they were able to compete with people from all over."

Nobody knows that better than Alysia Hunt of Memphis, who just graduated from Earlham College in Indiana.

An honor student, Hunt found her 1994 Exeter experience drastically different from her school, where often, she says, "they teach you to [repeat] what they teach." She adds, "I was glad to get more diversity. My high school was more than 90 percent black."

She was shy about speaking up in class, but says attending classes that were discussion-based "helped me start mulling it over in my mind.... It gave me better preparation for college."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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