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.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fifty-five boys were part of a bold experiment in the late 1960s. They were placed in an intensive summer school program and, if they finished, the headmasters of 16 prep schools agreed to enroll them, all tuition paid. The boys were all poor, almost all of them were black. That experiment evolved into an institution that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It's called A Better Chance.
The organization is funded by individuals, foundations and corporations. From NPR's new Code Switch team reporting on race, ethnicity and culture, Shereen Marisol Meraji has our profile.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, singer-songwriter Tracey Chapman, and Luis Ubinas, the president of the Ford Foundation, are among the nearly 14,000 A Better Chance alumni, and soon you can add these two names to that list.
FRANK HERNANDEZ: My name is Frank Hernandez. I'm a senior here at Thacher.
MAHOGANY MONETTE: My name is Mahogany Monette and I'm a junior at the Thacher School.
MERAJI: Frank Hernandez and Mahogany Monette are A Better Chance scholars at a boarding school in idyllic Ojai, California. 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.
MONETTE: I was super nervous for that and I remember talking to a girl next to me. She's like, oh yeah, I've ridden before. And she gets on her horse and she does amazing things and I'm just like oh, my God, what am I doing?
MERAJI: Mahogany and Frank describe their first few weeks at the Thacher School as exciting and totally overwhelming.
HERNANDEZ: The only thing that ever came close to it was astro camp in 5th grade, which we were gone for like three days maybe.
MERAJI: Frank grew up in a working class Latino neighborhood in Santa Ana. His Dad's a truck driver. His mom...
HERNANDEZ: She is a factory worker. She assembles extension cords and things like that.
MERAJI: Mahogany's mom, a single parent, raised her in South Los Angeles.
MONETTE: And my mom's a high school English teacher, so she kind of knew the schooling system in L.A. and she's like I don't really want my daughter to go to school in L.A., or at least not a public school.
MERAJI: Instead, she's at a boarding school just 90 minutes away where a good number of her classmates are very well off. Mahogany's neighborhood public high school graduates less than half of its students and most of the kids that go there are poor.
SANDRA TIMMONS: We're talking about families for whom independent boarding or day school would be completely out of their reach.
MERAJI: That's Sandra Timmons.
TIMMONS: I'm privileged to be the president of A Better Chance.
MERAJI: Timmons says since its inception, A Better Chance has been a talent scout for prep schools looking for diversity. In the '60s, a majority of the students were black and poor.
TIMMONS: The original topic was poverty. You educate people to become leaders and to help raise these communities out of poverty in many ways.
MERAJI: Today, Timmons says A Better Chance is about changing the face of leadership in the U.S. to better reflect its demographics. Latinos are a much bigger part of the program; so are Asians. Middle class students have a shot, too. Hopefuls write essays, provide letters of recommendation, go through an intense interview process. And if they make it in, A Better Chance works to match them with its schools.
It's competitive. Last year, less than a quarter of the 25,000 students who applied were placed.
DERICK PERRY: What they're really looking for are students for whom education is a priority.
MERAJI: Derick Perry is the director of annual giving at Thacher. He also went there as A Better Chance scholar in the early '80s. He says, like Frank Hernandez and Mahogany Monette, he had to acclimate to boarding school.
PERRY: My home, coming from a typical African-America, was full of bluster and yelling and screaming, and that's not the norm in white dominant culture.
MERAJI: But Perry said he learned what he considers a valuable skill, one that helped him graduate from an Ivy League college and climb the economic ladder.
PERRY: It's very important for talented students of color to come to a school like this to learn the language of the dominant culture. They tend, at a place like Thacher, to have conversations that are muted and rely on rhetoric and to learn, A, that it wasn't threatening, and B, I can thrive in it, was a valuable tool for me when I went from Thacher to Dartmouth.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He died for Daisy, which is not surprising.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you mean that's not surprising?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because his whole life has been revolved around her, so I think if he were to die a certain way...
MERAJI: Mahogany Monette is one of 14 students discussing "The Great Gatsby" in an AP English class at Thacher. The students sit around a large oval table and their teacher sits right alongside them. Mahogany says she loves her teachers and the small class sizes. But there have been times where she's felt very vulnerable.
MONETTE: For example, freshman year, we were reading Maya Angelou, and I was the only black student in my class and I had particular feelings I had about it, but sometimes you couldn't always feel like you could express them because you felt like you were expected to talk for all black people. I am one person. I can't speak for everyone. I can only speak for my experiences and what I've gone through personally.
MERAJI: Mahogany is telling the story of being the only black students in a prep school class 50 years after the creation of A Better Chance. The program's leaders say they want to help make stories like that obsolete in boarding schools and boardrooms. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
SIMON: And the Thacher student we met at the start of this story, Frank Hernandez, graduates today. This fall he'll attend President Obama's alma mater, Occidental College in Southern California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.