Fifty-five boys — all poor and almost all African-American — were a part of a bold educational experiment in the early 1960s. They were placed in an intensive summer school program. If they finished, the headmasters of 16 prep schools agreed to accept them. Tuition paid.
Planning for that experiment started in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement, one year before President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his "War on Poverty." Today, what began with 55 students and 16 schools has become an institution celebrating its 50th anniversary. It's called "A Better Chance."
A Better Chance now has 300 member schools, funding from individuals, foundations and corporations, and nearly 14,000 alumni. Gov. Deval Patrick, singer-song writer Tracy Chapman and Ford Foundation President Luis Antonio Ubiñas are among the program's beneficiaries.
So is Sylvester Monroe. His name might look familiar because he's had thousands of bylines as a national correspondent for Newsweek and Time magazines. Monroe was a long-time national correspondent for both. (Full disclosure: I met Monroe while working for the public radio program Marketplace.)
He said participating in A Better Chance changed his life.
From The Projects To Prep School
Monroe grew up in one of the most notorious housing projects in the United States, the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. He lived there with his mom, his brother and five sisters.
In 1965, when he was a freshman, Monroe attended Wendell Phillips High School. "Four thousand students, 99 percent black, all poor," he says. But a teacher there noticed he had talent and suggested he take part in A Better Chance. He did, leading to a free ride to one of the top boarding schools in the country, St. George's School in Newport, R.I.
"When I arrived, I dressed the way I used to dress on the South Side of Chicago," says Monroe. "I had on an alpaca mohair knit sweater, the kind Smokey Robinson made famous; baggy, reversible pleated, high-wasted pants; a pair of black-and-white Stacey Adams wingtips; a black hat with a feather and a pair of dark glasses." He adds, "It was 8 o'clock at night."
Needless to say, he was taken to buy new clothes.
In 1966, Monroe went from a school that was 99 percent black and poor to one that was 99 percent white and rich. "I mean, you talk about culture shock. Averell Harriman's grandson went to that school," he says. (Harriman was the former New York governor whose banking business became a successful Wall Street firm.) But he says he rarely struggled with the academics.
"At St. George's I met an alumnus who saw something I wrote in the literary magazine and asked if i wanted to meet the editor at Newsweek," says Monroe. He was a junior in high school at the time. Six years later, and just one week after his graduation from Harvard University, he was hired as a national correspondent for Newsweek. Monroe credits A Better Chance. "My world opened up," he says. "I never looked at the world the same way, again."
Fast-Forward 50 Years
Nearly 50 years later, the stories A Better Chance students tell about acclimating to prep school aren't quite as dramatic as Monroe's.
Frank Hernandez and Mahogany Monette are Better Chance scholars at The Thacher School, a pricey boarding school in idyllic Ojai, Calif. The campus sits on 425 acres complete with citrus groves and more than 100 horses. Along with rigorous academic requirements, students have to care for and ride the horses, something neither Hernandez nor Monette had any experience doing.
Monette and Hernandez describe their first few weeks at The Thacher School as exciting and totally overwhelming. "The only thing that ever came close to it was astro camp in 5th grade and we were gone for like three days," says Hernandez.
Hernandez grew up in a working class Latino neighborhood in Santa Ana. His dad's a truck driver and his mom makes extension cords in a factory. Monette's mom, a single parent and public school teacher, raised her in South Los Angeles. The public high school in her neighborhood graduates less than half of its students and a majority of the kids enrolled are considered "economically disadvantaged."
Sandra Timmons, the president of A Better Chance, says the program has evolved since its inception. In the '60s, a majority of the scholarship students were black and very poor, like Sylvester Monroe. "The original topic was poverty," says Timmons. "You educate people to become leaders and help raise these communities out of poverty in many ways." The participating schools paid for the tuition in those early years.
Timmons says that today, A Better Chance is less about poverty-alleviation and more about diversity — changing the face of leadership in the U.S. to reflect its demographics. Latinos are a much bigger part of the program and so are Asians. Middle-class students have a shot, too, and the schools subsidize tuition based on each scholar's financial need.
Hopefuls write essays, provide letters of recommendation, go through an intense interview process. And if they make it in, A Better Chance tries to match them with schools. It's competitive — last year, fewer than a quarter of the 2,500 students who applied were placed.
"I think A Better Chance has positioned itself better by taking advantage of a broad range of students instead of the most under-served," says Derick Perry, the director of annual giving at Thacher. He graduated from the school as a Better Chance scholar in the early '80s around the time the program's board decided to broaden its reach.
Like Frank Hernandez and Mahogany Monette, he says adjusting to life at The Thacher School was a process. "My home, coming from a typical African-American home, was full of bluster and yelling and screaming, and that's not the norm in white-dominant culture," says Perry.
But Perry says he learned what he considers a valuable skill, one that helped him graduate with an Ivy League degree and climb the economic ladder. "I think it's very important for talented students of color to come to a school like this to learn the language of the dominant culture," says Perry. "They tend at a place like Thacher to have conversations that are muted and rely on rhetoric. To learn that A) it wasn't threatening and B) that I could thrive in it, was a valuable tool."
Can't Speak For Everyone
It may be valuable to learn the language of the dominant culture, but it also can feel isolating to be "the only one." Mahogany Monette says she loves her teachers and the small class sizes at Thacher, but there have been times where she's felt very vulnerable:
"For example, freshman year, we were reading Maya Angelou and I was the only black student in my class. I had particular feelings about it, but sometimes you couldn't always express them because you were expected to talk for all black people. I am one person, I can't speak for everyone, I can only speak from my experiences and what I've gone through personally."
Fifty years after the creation of A Better Chance, students like Monette may still be the only ones of their race in their prep school classrooms. But the program's leaders say they want to make stories like that increasingly obsolete.