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At Hartford Academy, Students Work Hard, Aim High, Aren't Always Sure What They're Getting Into

ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER

April 05, 2009

Marcia Escobedo's students were growing frustrated, so she asked them to list the things they were missing out on.

Time with friends, 14-year-old Carissa Shannon said.

Losing sleep, Tahara Jordan, 13, added.

After-school sports.

Phone time.

A cousin's Sweet Sixteen party.

It was February 2008, and for eight months, the Hartford eighth-graders had given all that up for a shot at getting into one of the area's high-priced prep schools a dream that would otherwise be out of their reach. And right now, it didn't seem to be paying off.

As part of Steppingstone Academy Hartford, an academic boot camp of sorts, they spent weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings working on literature and math, slogging through extra homework and high school entrance exams, and facing the sort of life lessons that come up when you live in one of the country's poorest cities and are applying to some of the nation's most elite private schools.

The students all knew it was for one goal: getting to college.

But that can seem like a distant payoff when you're 13 and still trying to get through eighth grade, especially when at that very minute strangers in admissions offices are passing judgment on whether you deserve to go to their schools.

In just days, the students would get the first tangible measure of their work: letters from Choate, Ethel Walker, Taft and a host of other schools.

Which is how Escobedo's planned lesson for the day ended up as an inadvertent meditation on faith for 13- and 14-year-olds steeling themselves against rejection.

"I've been let down all my life," Carissa said. Then she pointed to the ceiling and added, so what's the point of getting my hopes up there?

The students, most of whom were black or Hispanic, were chosen for specific reasons: They were not at the top of their class, but had potential; they came from families without a history of attending college but with committed parents; and they wouldn't be able to afford private school on their own.

Modeled after a similar program in Boston and funded almost entirely by foundations and donors, Steppingstone, run by the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation, amounted to 14 months of extra school spanning the summer after seventh grade through the summer before high school. There were lessons in math, study skills and literature, most on the campus of Trinity College.

But the lessons went beyond academics, to less-typical subjects: how to introduce yourself to people and give a firm handshake, how to properly eat at a fancy meal, how to respond to people who treat you differently because of the color of your skin or because you're going to school on scholarship.

If the students' prep-school hopes came through, they would be crossing into what might as well be another world in a state where the lines between rich and poor, city and suburban enclave, are stark.

Expectations

The stakes were more than just acceptance or rejection.

It was going to tiny classes on cloistered campuses vs. a school district where 64 percent of ninth-graders don't get a diploma in four years.

It was the kind of difference Carissa noticed when she visited Suffield Academy with her mother, and her brother, a student at Hartford's Weaver High School, sent them a text message: Can you come get me? Someone's shooting at the school.

Carissa and her classmates knew how the city was perceived in the surrounding area, the negative images that came across the news each night. Applying to private schools in the suburbs meant facing the expectations head on, feeling the full weight of the city's reputation as they set themselves up to be evaluated by people outside of it.

Tahara worried that admissions officers would see her address, in north Hartford, and her school, Fox Middle, and come to an easy "no."

Carissa wondered if people who put down Hartford and its schools wanted them to fail. It takes so much energy to beat expectations, she figured, most people give in to them.

Shebrikea Warburton, one of their classmates, worried that private schools would judge her by what they saw of the city on television or read in the newspaper. In a way, she had already internalized the expectations for teenage girls.

"Oh, I'm almost in high school," she sometimes thought to herself. "I should be pregnant. I should be on welfare."

And so, when it came time to apply to prep schools, Shebrikea followed the theme. The required essay was to write about someone who inspired you.

"My cousin ... was 17 years old when she got pregnant and had her baby girl," her essay began.

Shebrikea's cousin got strange looks in public and had to leave school, she wrote. But she kept going, planning to return to school and finish for her daughter. One day, she sat Shebrikea, her younger cousin, down and told her, "I don't want you to end up like me."

"Because of my cousin's mistake, I have high standards to meet," Shebrikea wrote. "She says that she wants to attend my high school and college graduation."

"The only thing that will make her happy is for her to see me as the world's most famous emergency room doctor," she wrote. "And I intend to make her happy."

Getting-In Blues

Soon after Escobedo's talk, the letters started coming. Some students got into boarding or day schools with financial aid packages nearly the size of the nation's median family income. Others were accepted but wait-listed for aid. Some didn't get in anywhere and struggled to understand what all the work had been for.

Then there was Tahara.

She had been accepted to the Ethel Walker School with a full scholarship, a success by any measure. But instead of celebrating, she began acting out talking out of turn in class, butting heads with Steppingstone's program director.

It got so bad that Beth Miller, the program's development director and a mother figure to the scholars, worried that Tahara would lose her place at Ethel Walker.

At first, when she learned Ethel Walker had accepted her, Tahara felt like a whole new door had opened up.

But two of her closest friends hadn't fared as well. Shebrikea got into Watkinson School, but without any financial aid, meaning she wouldn't be able to go. Carissa, a gifted student whom the program directors expected to be accepted, got rejected from, or wait-listed at, the schools she applied to.

We've all made this journey, Tahara thought. How can only some of us make it?

Carissa was furious, too. Since kindergarten, she had been getting up extra early for an hourlong bus ride to Plainville, where she attended school as part of a voluntary desegregation program.

The schools there were better than those in her neighborhood in north Hartford, but Plainville was still a blue-collar town, unable to afford a program for gifted students. As she got older, Carissa grew less engaged, started skipping homework and relying on high test scores to keep her grades up.

Through Steppingstone, she saw a chance to go to a school where she would be challenged.

But now she had been shut out of the prep schools. She thought about quitting. She had done all this work, and for what? Why had Tahara, who got in more trouble, skipped class at middle school, gotten in, but not her?

Seeing how the girls were being affected, Miller decided to step in.

You feel guilty, she told Tahara, and you're self-sabotaging.

Miller gave Tahara and Carissa notebooks and instructions: Get your feelings out on paper. Don't let them compromise your behavior, your future.

Tahara wrote. One day, she handed her notebook to Miller, who typed it up, inserted line breaks, then returned it to Tahara.

"That looks like a poem," Tahara said.

"It always was a poem," Miller replied.

Tahara called it "Diamond in the Rough." It began:

Scratched.

Pushed.

Punched.

Called names.

Yeah, I been through it all,

But, hey, I'm 'a make it

'Cause I'm a diamond in the rough.

Tahara's behavior began to improve. Carissa changed, too. She had been fixated on the idea that she had done so much work for nothing. Then, after two weeks of fuming, she realized the reverse also applied. She had done all that work.

What good would it be to quit now?

Days later, her mother got a call. Carissa had been accepted to Westminster School, with a full scholarship.

And Tahara's poem didn't stay on paper. After much urging, she stood to deliver it in the Trinity College Chapel, facing hundreds of people gathered for the Steppingstone commencement ceremony. She giggled nervously. Then, as if something snapped into place, she stood composed and read it. Her classmates leaped to their feet in applause when she finished.

Then she read it again, in August, at a read-in at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford. An account in the West Hartford News noted, "Though listeners heartily applauded each and every one of the readers, the poet who probably garnered the most robust admiration was Tahara Jordan, a resident of Hartford and former Fox Middle School student."

Prove Them Wrong

By September, with move-in less than a week away, Carissa knew her soon-to-be roommate at Westminster by name (Emily) and hometown (Unionville, Pa.). She was thinking about establishing their living arrangements.

"I will make sure my roommate learns my pet peeves," she said, noting an aversion to stinky rooms, nasty toenails and anyone borrowing stuff without asking. She also planned to mention that if Emily planned to use drugs, it would have to be in another room; she has allergies, and besides, someone would probably blame it on her.

Carissa figured her classmates would be as nervous as she was to start high school and move away from home.

She was excited. Students would be there because they want to learn. If you have a problem or a question, the teachers are nearby to help.

But there was also a new set of expectations.

"You have to knock it out of the park," Miller told the students soon after they were accepted into private schools. You'll be ambassadors for Steppingstone, clearing the way for other Hartford students to come. It won't be enough to just squeak by.

"That's so much pressure, 'you put a good name in for Hartford!'" Carissa said. "'You're Hartford. You've got to prove everybody wrong.'"

Days before school started, she, Tahara and Atesha Gifford, another student heading to Westminster, traded predictions and worries about what they would face. While Carissa had gone to school with mostly white classmates in Plainville, Tahara and Atesha attended middle schools with just a handful of white students. Tahara said she worried about school events, being the only student with just a mom coming when others had two parents show up.

From her years in Plainville, Carissa knew differently. Some of them had single parents too, she said, even a dad in jail.

But Carissa knew she would also face a new situation, living with a new group of peers instead of going home every day to a mom to vent to.

What would they think of her? At Westminster, Carissa worried, people might think I'm a black person who doesn't want to be there.

Tahara chimed in, speculating about her classmates at Ethel Walker: They'll probably think I'm not going to do the work, or I'll want to get high.

Atesha worried that someone would use the "N" word and set off her normally long fuse. She worried that people would think that because she's from Hartford, she'd cut class, behave badly.

Their plan to deal with it?

"Prove them wrong."

Finding a Place

As it turned out, they didn't have to.

Tahara arrived at Ethel Walker surprised to learn that everyone knew her name. Someone had read about her in the West Hartford News and asked about her poem. She clicked with her roommate both liked math and loved softball and felt at home in her new room, with a (slightly obstructed) view of Talcott Mountain.

She ran up a long list of activities: dance, choir, Black Latina Student Union, Amnesty International, the environment team, an AIDS awareness club, drill team. She couldn't wait for her mom to see her yearbook and see her in so many groups. By November, she'd already exceeded her required community service hours, mentoring children in Hartford. She felt at home. "I just feel right here," she said.

Twenty of the Steppingstone students headed to private school last fall, including Shebrikea, who attends Northwest Catholic High School. Five more attend magnet or suburban high schools. One attends Hartford Public High School.

At Westminster, Carissa found that her classmates didn't judge her for being from Hartford; many were from out of state and most didn't seem to know much about the city at all. On a school trip to the Hartford Stage, students remarked mostly on the tall buildings.

And she was being challenged. For the first time, she had to study in math, she said proudly. She took to the task with gusto. One night, she spent an hour staring at one geometry problem, stumped. She went to a sophomore friend for help, then to a math teacher who lived in her dorm.

Students are supposed to stop after 40 minutes on any particular homework assignment on any night, but Carissa ignored the rule, determined to find the answer. "There's no point in me stopping because I'm not going to understand it if I stop," she explained.

The Steppingstone staff keep tabs on the students, checking in and offering "support services" from arranging clarinet lessons for Shebrikea, so she could keep up with band classmates who had years of private lessons, to giving other students advice on how to approach a teacher who doesn't see things the student's way.

Still, there have been challenges, like the uncomfortable feeling of sitting through a class discussion of the minimum wage with classmates incredulous that someone earns that little, when your parents do.

Tahara entered Ethel Walker behind for her grade. She takes honors algebra with eighth-graders and started behind in other classes.

One day in English, she asked so many questions about the assignment outlining an analytical essay that another student got annoyed, she said. The classmate wondered why Tahara didn't know how to write a thesis statement and said she had been doing it since sixth grade.

"I said, 'Well, I'm doing it in ninth grade,'" Tahara said.

Those are small things, the stuff you get over quickly, she said.

She noticed small things that came from students' differences nothing big enough to make her not like the school, she was quick to say. There was the time another student, speaking on the phone, offered the caller a chance to talk to "my black friend."

"They should have said 'friend,'" Tahara murmured, remembering it later.

She planned to speak at an assembly later in the year, talk to her classmates about using the term African American instead of black, about the importance of taking African American history as seriously as the rest of American history, about treating each other equally, even if some came from schools far better than the one where she started.

At lunch one day, Tahara mispronounced a word in her fortune cookie, saying "good fortune" as "good for-toon." Another student corrected her, prompting an argument with other students about whether it was polite to correct Tahara if she didn't know better.

Tahara got up and left the table.

She was still getting adjusted to the school, to her classmates, to the new way she thought of herself at boarding school. She was more mature, careful to make her bed, aware of what she needed to do to stay out of trouble. I'm a good person, she said over and over again.

And she was getting used to the space between school and home. At school, her classmates told her they loved how she talked "ghetto," she said. When she went home, people told her she sounded like she'd been at boarding school a long time.

It was a distinction they heard but she didn't. "I'm from Connecticut," she concluded. "I don't have an accent."

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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