Challenge Changes, But Flexibility Stays PBH Asks More of Its Teachers And Reaches for Underachievers

A 12-year-old cameraman corrals good-looking Cliffise as they walk by the Coop, persuades them to pose, and snaps their picture. There is a young boy who tells about how he plays the saxaphone by tooting notes softly until he finds one that sounds good. An eight-grader has built his own short story about Chicago Blitbottom into a three-act play.

They are all part of Challenge, a Phillips Brooks House program that works with underachieving boys in the sixth through ninth grades of the Cambridge schools. The program offers three hour sessions twice weekly with the time equally divided among English, Math, and an elective. The program hopes to give the boys the motivation and skills to improve their school performance and eventually get them into college. Started three years ago on the model of the Ulysses S. Grant program at Yale, Challenge has grown to include 60 students and 25 Harvard teachers.

During its first two years Challenge was committed to seeking out underachievers from families on the borderline between poor and middle-class. But the program had to work through the Cambridge School System, and in practice many teachers recommended boys who were fine students, not underachievers, and who were from middle-class, not borderline families.

This year Challenge tightened its admission policy. "We decided to get boys who without Challenge would be unlikely to improve in school... boys from low income families where higher education seems hardly a realistic possibility," says Thomas Dublin '68, co-chairman of the program. Challenge now screens teacher recommendations more carefully by visiting the homes of prospective students. The program has also started to recruit students from sources outside the school system--like settlement houses and present Challenge students. Satisfied with the new techniques, Challenge's directors will try to utilize non school sources even more next year.

Challenge is toughening its policy for selecting teachers as well as students. Before most of the teachers were recruited at Registration. Now Challenge has teacher applications and interviews in the spring to select a staff for the following year. And the program is increasingly demanding a serious commitment from those who join up. Teachers must come back to Harvard a week early for a training session and must attend curriculum meetings during the year. The negligent or apathetic are being asked to leave.

The electives--offered in Dramatics, Newspaper, Science, Photography, Social Studies, and Art--are also new this year. Last year the electives were Art and Music; the year before that, Current Events. While the new subjects, as Donald King '68 points out, "were intended as a bribe to make the whole program more attractive," some have been very educational.


In the Dramatics class, a few boys are writing a play, Zindoolooland Forever, a story about a successful revolt against a tyrant that turns into another dictatorship. For example one character recounts the deeds of the revolutionaries: "First they got the governor, then they seized the mayor, and finally they captured the most important official of all--the garbage collector. The whole town started smelling so bad after a few days that everyone rioted."

The Newspaper class has put out five issues of Challenge, complete with reporting, announcements, and editorials. Science is the favorite subject for many of the students. Using Harvard lab facilities, they dissect frogs and do experiments. Photography too has flourished with free supplies provided by the Kodak Company. Of the electives, only Social Studies teacher tried a Summer hill approach, but the boys complained that they spent all their time talking about what the class was going to do without ever doing anything.

Challenge also began an informal weekly seminar program for fourth graders this year. The six seminar members, who attended fairly regularly, had classes ranging from a debate on Vietnam to analysis of a symphony. The boys were able to discuss academic and personal problems with their teachers. When one flunked French, Challenge found him a tutor. However, the program suffered from infrequent meetings and a shot-gun approach to subject matter. The boys had a fairly heavy load of homework; many held part-time jobs; and several were on sports teams. Although Challenge would like to have classes for boys all the way through 12th grade, high school students, even more than the ninth graders, are likely not to have time to participate.

Despite Challenge's innovations in admissions policy and curriculum, it has only had partial success. About two-thirds of the students show up for each session. While some have bettered their grades the changes, in general, haven't been spectacular. Challenge's most significant gains have probably been in less tangible areas like improving student attitudes toward learning culture, and college.


To teach the intangibles, Challenge has tried to keep its style informal. A biannual comment about a grade replaces a conventional report card. Classes are small and discipline tends to be lax. Teachers often change around their lesson plans. If students bring in an interesting magazine article, most Challenge teachers would scrap their class outline.

Challenge plays down the academic character of its subject matter. A recent letter to prospective students said: "In Challenge we don't study English: we do pantomime, act out stories and plays, read horror tales, write comic and adventure stories, and play Hangman and Ghost."

Nevertheless, this year all classes are group and shy or overly active boys sometimes find the atmosphere stifling. If several impatient bright students are in a class, the teacher may not be able to give slow learners or boys with reading problems adequate attention. Some Challenge teachers think the program should switch back to the system it had used the first two years when 20 students had individual tutors and 20 had group classes.