Readying Low-Income Kids for Elite Prep Schools

Boston's new Beacon Academy promises low-income middle school students a better chance of acceptance at elite private prep schools, but not without some sacrifice. Audie Cornish talks with school officials who claim Beacon can help level the economic and academic playing field for promising underprivileged students.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, transforming "Lolita" from a forgotten novel to a contemporary classic.

First, we hit the books in Boston. It's easy to understand why ambitious students, and parents, sacrifice for admission into top universities. And when great grades aren't enough, students cram in enrichment activities and have expensive test tutors to help and maybe even take an extra year of course work to improve their chances. But what about making these same sacrifices to get into high school?

GREG DeSOUSA (Student, Beacon Academy): If I was describing it to my friends, it would say it's, like, eighth-and-a-half grade. It's not quite eighth grade and it's not quite ninth grade; it's just in the middle.

CHADWICK: Fourteen-year-old Greg DeSousa is one of the first-ever students at Beacon Academy in Boston, which tries to help poor minority kids get into some of the country's top private high schools. From member station WBUR in Boston, Audie Cornish has more.

Mr. ROBERT GREENE (Teacher, Beacon Academy): ...(Unintelligible) as a response to needs.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Robert Greene has often taught this math lesson to sixth-graders at the private independent schools where he's worked in the past, but this year, it's lesson number one for the 20 middle-school-aged students at Beacon Academy.

Mr. GREENE: Many kids who've been in independent schools by the time they've finished eighth grade, they've completed a full Algebra I curriculum. The students at Beacon Academy by and large haven't had a chance to even see some of that material, much less develop mastery over it.

CORNISH: Most of the boys and girls sitting in his classroom are motivated students with great grades who could have been sitting in a ninth-grade classroom today, and the students go through a rigorous application process to get into Beacon. Now they're spending a year preparing for a chance at one of the elite private high schools where Greene once worked.

Mr. GREENE: And as a former admission officer in independent schools, I saw ton of kids who were a year away. I wish they had six extra months. I wish they had an extra year to get ready because I knew once they got to the ninth grade in my particular school, they weren't going to be ready; not that they weren't bright, but there was too much of a gap to cover in the curriculum.

CORNISH: Each of the students pay some part of the $25,000-per-pupil cost of the program, but most of those costs are covered by private donors. The school runs from 9 to 5, six days week for more than a year. Fourteen-year-old Greg DeSousa has set his sights on a small private school outside of Boston called the River School, where the average class size is 13 and graduates regularly go on to top universities such as Yale and Brown.

DeSOUSA: Well, I think that after I get into, like, a private school, an exempt school, that they would help me to prepare for things, like, further in life, like houses, mortgages and stuff like that, you know, or then prepare me for college.

CORNISH: DeSousa and his classmates are looking at everything from Milken Academy, where members of political families such as the Kennedys were educated, to Phillips Academy, which graduated both George W. and Herbert Walker Bush. But some Beacon Academy parents are not convinced that this is the only route to success for their children.

Ms. VANESSA MARTIN(ph) (Parent): I really, truly don't see the need for it.

CORNISH: Vanessa Martin says her son, Corey Gregory(ph), should have considered going to Boston Latin, one of the prestigious public schools where he was already accepted. Instead, she says, he insisted on going to Beacon Academy, delaying the ninth grade for a shot at Harvard University's prep school neighbor Buckingham, Browne & Nichols.

Ms. MARTIN: Over at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, they say that he needed to go through this program to make sure that he can--I'm going to put it in my words--hang with the private kids, which I believe he can without going through this. But if this has got to be a steppingstone, so be it.

CORNISH: And in order to `hang with the private kids,' Beacon isn't stopping at academics. Over the summer, some of the students visited the vacation home of one of their benefactors on Martha's Vineyard. This fall, they'll spend every other week at the Museum of Fine Arts. Beacon's dean of students, Mervin Osbourne(ph), says these social experiences help acclimate the kids to the wealth that he says he found bewildering in his own prep school days.

Mr. MERVIN OSBOURNE (Dean of Students, Beacon Academy): If you can get rid of that `Wow' treatment, if you can demystify going to a museum for a kid, it can give them a sense of ownership of at least part of that experience.

CORNISH: Osbourne, who's a former private school admissions and financial aid officer, says that wealthy parents can buy their kids an extra year of prep, and Beacon Academy allows kids who aren't rich to do the same thing without the stigma of repeating a grade. By January, the first class of Beacon Academy will be sending in prep school applications. None are guaranteed entrance, but they're all encouraged to apply. For NPR News, I'm Audie Cornish in Boston.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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