Monday, March 12, 2012

Summer camp targets high achievers when it counts

ANDOVER, MASS. --As a child, Kristina Halona grew up withoutrunning water or electricity on a New Mexico Navajo reservation. Butshe had big dreams: Inspired by the Air Force jets that raced overthe desert landscape, she set her sights on the science of spaceexploration.

Today, Halona helps develop satellites as an aerospace engineer.It's a leap that was made possible, the young college graduate says,by spending her high school summers hard at work in classroomsthousands of miles from her Southwestern home.

Halona was in ninth grade when she first traveled to PhillipsAcademy in Andover, Mass. For a quarter-century now, the school'sMath and Science for Minority Students--(MS)2--program has broughtpublic high school students from inner cities and reservations tothis leafy campus just north of Boston. Over three consecutivesummers, they pack in whole years' worth of courses like physics,calculus, and English-- giving kids a taste of college life whilehelping them develop the confidence and skills to succeed there.

Virtually all the program's graduates go on to college. And whenalumni returned to campus this month to celebrate (MS)2's 25thanniversary, they came back as doctors, engineers, and otherprofessionals.

Ted Sizer, a former Phillips Academy headmaster who helped launch(MS)2, says he couldn't have anticipated its success. Indeed, manyalumni called it the best experience in their lives-- their firstchance to meet so many equally bright kids from similar backgrounds.

"Going to a place like that and learning opens yours eyes," saysHalona, who graduated from the program in 1995.

Few though, ever claim it was easy.

At this academic boot camp, students spend five hours in class orlabs and just as much time doing homework six days a week. They takemore classes than other Phillips Academy summer-session students, andmust get a higher minimum grade to pass.

Such rigor is no accident, says program director Temba Maqubela.He knows what it means to surmount a challenge: A youth apartheidleader in his native South Africa, he was forced to leave and arrivedin the United States homeless, eventually becoming a chemistryteacher at Phillips Academy. "We want them to walk onto a campus withconfidence and feel they belong, that they want and deserve it all,not that they're being done a favor," Maqubela says.

In class, Maqubela gently throws chalk at students who fall asleepand admits to having given"the test from hell." After spending a halfhour explaining their test answers on the board, several studentsmoan when he tells the class to retake the test again that night.

Maqubela says he tries to teach them life skills less easy tolearn than the periodical table, such as organizing their time, theloneliness of studying, and the discipline of learning by repetition.And at a weekly meeting, he reminds them that their presence is aprivilege, not a right. Some 200 students apply for the program,which is funded mostly by donations. Only 35 are accepted.

They bring a range of family and financial hardships. Oneapplicant saw a parent shot to death by the other parent. Many dependon public assistance.

For students used to excelling without studying much, (MS)2 can beboth a rude and pleasant awakening. "It's nice here to be able tothink," says Ashleigh Eldemire, a first-year student from a Bostonhigh school, where she says one teacher often fell asleep duringclass. Here you want to work hard and get good grades. It's fun."

Still, adjusting to campus life can be as jolting as the classwork. Many students arrive at this school of colonial brick buildingsspread among wide lawns having rarely left their urban neighborhoodsor rural reservations. Xavier Del Rosario of Harlem says it was soquiet his first night, he just couldn't sleep. Cassandra Toledo saysshe's used to silence on the Jemez Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico,but had never met an African-American. "This is a big culture shockto me," she says.

(MS)2 students learned about one another's backgrounds bypreparing skits during their second weekend together. A band composedof African-American students played a song by jazz musician JohnColtrane. Native American students donned traditional garb to dance.

"We try to get them to understand there's diversity within thediversity," Maqubela says.

And while their classes are held separately from other summer-session courses, they share dorms, eat cookies, and drink milk withall students on campus after morning classes, and play sportstogether each afternoon.

With a week left in the program, Xavier says he doesn't want to gohome but won't necessarily mind showing off what he learned here."You feel good when you know more than everyone in the class," hesays.

Douglas Tyson, a science teacher from a Washington public school,says (MS)2 students return energized. "They come back with aninfectious enthusiasm for academics," says Tyson, who has helped sometwo dozen students successfully apply. They also come back moreconfident, knowing they aren't alone. "It dispels any motion thatit's acting white to be smart or to want to achieve or take bookshome," Tyson says.

By the third summer, the students' focus shifts ahead. They take acollege-planning course and once a week visit top colleges includingYale, Brown, and Dartmouth.

Roy Adams, was unsure about where to go to college as a third-year (MS)2 student in 1995. The guidance counselor at his Bronx highschool suggested a New York state school. Adams says he couldn'tthink of any better alternatives. But one day, one of the (MS)2teachers stopped him and said, "Roy, you should think about Yale."

He wound up there, majoring in economics and playing football. Healso convinced several friends who had never thought of Ivy Leagueschools to apply, too.

"I started seeing the potential in me," says Adams who now worksas a vice president at a financial-services firm. "It reallybroadened my horizons and introduced met to a whole world I was notprivy to as a young kid growing up in the Bronx."

Christian Science Monitor

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