Town & Gown at the School Next Door

Cambridge Rindge and Latin

We see them every day.

Like us, they walk through the Yard carrying books and talking with friends. Sometimes they stop to admire the beauty of the campus and the antiquity of its buildings.

They are the students at Cambridge's local public high school, the Rindge and Latin School.

To many of the 2146 students at Rindge and Latin, however, Harvard remains not much more than a next-door neighbor--and an unfriendly one at that. Harvard may be just across the street from Rindge and Latin, but as one official there says, "To some students it is a million miles away."

But some Harvard undergraduates are trying to change that.

Through a host of connections--both formal and informal--students at Harvard and those at Rindge and Latin come in contact every day, beyond the perfunctory glances of a walk through the Yard.

First of all, there are the approximately 30 Harvard undergraduates who went to Rindge and Latin. They are the most obvious connection between the two schools, the visible link between the town and the gown.

In fact, Harvard says it makes a special effort to consider applications from Cambridge high school students, with 40 percent of last year's applicants from Rindge gaining admission. Harvard's overall acceptance rate was just 20 percent, says Dwight D. Miller, a senior admissions officer who oversees Cambridge-area applications.

"Obviously Harvard's relationship as an institution with the city of Cambridge and Boston is a sensitive one," Miller says. "We try to be sensitive to the kids applying from those [area] schools."

And Albert H. Giroux, director of public relations for the Cambridge School Department, says Rindge and Latin reciprocates Harvard's interest. "[The high school] takes special interest in preparing students to attend Harvard. We appreciate Harvard's concern for our undergraduates' applications," he says.

But getting Rindge and Latin students into Harvard doesn't go too far in solving the problems of interactions between the two schools.

Harvard-bound students are a very small proportion of the Rindge and Latin student body, and they tend to be more motivated--if not more privileged--than their peers.

With an enrollment consisting of 50 percent minority students, Rindge and Latin is one of the country's most diverse public high schools. Students representing 64 different nations and speaking 46 different primary languages make up the student body, Giroux says.

In addition to its ethnic and national diversity, Rindge's student body also includes students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. Giroux says that 48 percent of Rindge and Latin students qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunches.

And those demographics have made Rindge and Latin the focus of many Harvard community service efforts.

From daily tutoring programs to an undergraduate-coached basketball team, Harvard students spend a lot of time working with the high school students next-door. Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) deploys about 40 students regularly in its work with Rindge and Latin, and other groups such as the Housing and Neighborhood Development Program (HAND) send platoons of undergraduate volunteers.

But despite the elaborate network of programs, the problems of communication are many.

The experience of Patrick G. Jackson '91 is one example.

Jackson, the treasurer of the two-year-old Committee on Help for the Advancement of Needy Children through Education (CHANCE), says the gulf is wide between the ivory tower and public high school.

"I don't think there is enough interaction between Harvard students and Cambridge Rindge and Latin students," he says. "You walk past them in the Yard. It's like they have blinders on. It's as if Harvard doesn't care about them, and they don't care what happens at Harvard."

And Jackson's Rindge and Latin "little brother," 16-year-old Jorge L. Rodriguez agrees. "It sometimes seems as if Harvard is in its own world," he says.

Still Jackson--and Rodriguez--agree their experience with CHANCE is a valuable one.

CHANCE sponsors weekly meals and teaching sessions every Monday night for approximately 50 Rindge and Latin students who want or need additional academic help. The program includes classes in SAT preparation, writing skills and creative learning, says Vice President Andrew S. Richman '90.

One of PBHA's 36 community service committees, CHANCE also provides a "big brother-big sister" program.

"A lot of the kids we are helping are thinking about going to college and just don't know how to get there," Jackson says. "We try to dispell the myth that college is an ivory tower."

But CHANCE and others who tutor Rindge and Latin students face some tough statistics. About 60 percent of graduating seniors at Rindge go on to four-year colleges, but the school's average combined SAT scores were 47 points below the national average of 906 in 1988.

Still, Richman says that the informality of the CHANCE program--in contrast with the more formal setting in Rindge and Latin classrooms--is one way the program can help motivate students to improve their academic skills.

"The idea is for tutors and students to be able to talk in an informal way. We try very hard to make it very informal," Richman says. In this way, he says, CHANCE "tries to show them that college is not a scary place."

And while CHANCE's volunteers can never be certain their efforts are making a difference, sometimes the payoff is obvious.

"I never thought that I could get so involved with Harvard," Rodriguez says. "My impression used to be that [Harvard students] didn't want to help the community and didn't have the time. Students would look at me funny when I walked around, campus and they would think, "This high school student shouldn't be here.' Now I sort of look up to them."

But for every student CHANCE convinces about Harvard's commitment to the community, there are several others who continue to resent Harvard students.

Says Rodriguez, "Some of my friends who don't go to the program think that Harvard students are so up on their attitudes and don't want to deal with people who aren't close to them."

And CHANCE's officers have started to worry about the problem of exactly who they're helping at Rindge and Latin. They say the students they tutor are already academically motivated, and are looking to go to college. And that limits the program's reach, they add.

"Our original intention was that we wanted kids who had the ability to go to college but were not working to their potential," Richman says. "We think we are getting overqualified kids."

Rene Meshon, a guidance counselor with Rindge and Latin's Student Service Center, oversees the school's selection of students whom it recommends to participate in CHANCE each year.

And she, too, sees a potential problem. "We'd like to have students who need it [extra help] more. We're not giving up. It's a tough question," she says.

All-Purpose Volunteers

The Cambridge School Volunteers, Inc., a nonprofit organization closely associated with the Cambridge public school system, also draws on Harvard students for its tutoring programs with Rindge and Latin.

In fact, about half of the volunteers come from either Harvard or MIT, says Frank H. White '55, the organization's director. There are between 150 and 200 Harvard undergraduates involved, he says.

"I think it's extraordinary," White says. "Harvard and MIT undergraduates are ideal. They are at just the right age to work with high school students. The kind of student at Harvard and MIT has a good understanding of the learning process. There is no question in our minds that the quality of the students there is excellent."

Harvard students are all-purpose volunteers in White's program. Most serve as personal tutors, but some work in the school's computerized writing center, library and in classrooms where they sometimes prepare "mini-courses" and give lectures, White says. One student, he says, taught guitarplaying to a small group of students.

The Cambridge School Volunteers program, however, concentrates much of its work at Rindge and Latin on English-language training.

Because of the tremendous diversity of languages spoken at Rindge and Latin, "two-thirds of the high school students we see are here because English is their second language. That need is increasing," White says.

Rindge and Latin senior Yao Feng, 18, is a recent immigrant from China who was tutored last year by Tim K. Marks '90 in pre-calculus as part of the Cambridge School Volunteers program. "He [Marks] helped me understand word problems. When you talk one-to-one, it's very helpful," says Yao Feng.

Yao Feng also says that through the regular tutoring sessions, he became friends with Marks and "learned a lot about the social life in the United States. We talked a lot about college and about which college I should go to."

"I like to give [high school students] a feel for what college is like," says Marks, who is in his second year as a volunteer for the program. "I would tell them what life is like at college."

More formal academic help for Rindge and Latin students comes from Harvard undergrads who serve as student teachers as part of the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program (UTEP), sponsored by Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Robert Traver, program administrator for UTEP, says that 69 students are enrolled in this year's program. Between five and six observers and four student teachers are at Rindge and Latin this semester, he says.

"On a case-by-case basis, the reaction [to UTEP at Rindge and Latin] has been very favorable," Traver says. "The faculty enjoy the undergraduates because they are enthusiastic and provide fresh, stimulating ideas." Students who share material learned in their own courses particularly enhance class discussion at Rindge and Latin, Traver adds.

But while most of the undergraduates involved with CHANCE, Cambridge School Volunteers, Inc. and UTEP concentrate their efforts on academics, other Harvard students take a different tack in their interactions with Rindge and Latin.

Joshua A. Smith '91, for one, leads a group of seven Harvard students who coach a Rindge and Latin basketball team consisting of 10 to 15 students, many of whom are Hispanic immigrants to the United States.

And the Harvard International Relations Council sends 27 students each week into Rindge and Latin's American history classes to spend an hour or so talking about current issues.

"It's an opportunity for them to learn about things that normally wouldn't be taught in a high school curriculum," says Daniel A. Sachs '90, who directs the program. "It doesn't present Harvard students as total geeks only interested in facts."

But whether or not Harvard students can successfully move beyond their identification with the Ivory Tower, they continue to expand the reach of their connections with Cambridge's Rindge and Latin School.

The problem is what all these volunteers can realistically expect to achieve.

Michelle D. Holdt '92, a member of the Rindge and Latin Class of '87, says that most of her classmates did not take an active interest in the affairs of Harvard. And there was a reason for that, she adds.

"In high school I had very little sense of the quantity of Harvard students in the Square," Holdt says. "In high school Harvard Yard is somewhere that you walk through to get to the Square. I think it still is."

Holdt recalls an incident last spring that reinforced her sense of how separate Harvard and its high school neighbor are. During a party at Adams House, a fight broke out between Harvard students and Rindge and Latin students. The Harvard police, she says, arrested only the Rindge and Latin students.

"The people who got the shit were Cambridge students. I felt very torn during the incident," says Holdt. "In their minds, they [the Harvard students] are these rich, snobby students in their town. I think those impressions will always exist."