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Getting City Kids To Prep School

August 7, 2007
By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer

Atesha and Karolina are a couple of 12-year-olds from Hartford with eyes on a prep school and an Ivy League education.

It's dreams like this that could disrupt our tidy separate-and-unequal system of education.

Private school has long been for people with access, and that generally doesn't mean Hartford children. The rule in the city is that three in 10 students finish high school on time. Fewer hang on for a college degree.

Average kids "don't have a chance," Karolina Kwiecinska told me. "The whole level of learning is a lot lower."

If the house is on fire, don't you do anything to save the children? Shouldn't we offer city students any means possible to get to college, whether it's public or private?

A small but symbolic part of the solution could be a new program that seeks to pry open the prep school gates for city kids.

Atesha and Karolina are among the first class of the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation, a coalition of business leaders and educators. This hip-hop "My Fair Lady" aims for dramatic results.

"I'm trying to break the chain in my family, a chain of high school dropouts," Atesha Gifford told me as we sat on the grassy campus of Trinity College, where the scholars are attending summer school. "My mother and father, my two brothers and two sisters dropped out."

The foundation selected 31 seventh-graders for a rigorous 14-month process it hopes will get them into a private school by the fall of 2008. An offshoot of a similar program in Boston, the Hartford effort is led by former United Technologies Corp. President Karl J. Krapek.

Krapek said the idea is to educate these kids and encourage them to come back to Hartford after college.

"Our dreams are to do 150 kids a year," he said. "We are taking kids that may not have had the chance to go to college or to understand the value of it."

The program consists of a lot of extra vocabulary and math. It's also about firm handshakes and setting goals. Good scores on the Secondary School Aptitude Test are essential.

The scholars are all B students from families with no history of going to college. Most important is a longing for something better.

Before this program, the likelihood of a girl like Atesha making it into a prestigious private school was slim. In the 25 private schools that have agreed to join with the scholars program, there are just 163 Hartford students. Half go to Northwest Catholic. Some have none.

There's an obvious academic hurdle, but Suffield Academy headmaster Charlie Cahn said there's an equally significant psychological barrier: These families don't think private schools exist for them.

"The kids in this program will all understand the expectations," said Cahn, a member of the Youth Scholars' board of directors. "If we provide qualified and excited candidates, the area independent schools are going to open their doors to them eagerly."

The schools in the program have agreed to take a hard look at the Hartford scholars. Which means they don't have much time to become private school material.

"A student who grows up in a family who makes $25,000 a year is not the same as a student who grows up in a family that makes $100,000 or $200,000," said Tim Goodwin, executive director of the Youth Scholars program. "Our ultimate goal is college access. We don't care how they get there."

Neither should anyone else. It doesn't matter how kids from Hartford get to college, as long as they get there - and graduate.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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