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Upward Bound

Community Students Get an Extra Push

By Meredith E. Greene

Two years ago, Tom Benson was just another struggling sophomore at South Boston High School. "I was not hitting the books very hard," the tall, muscular basketball player understates. Benson has since dramatically improved his study habits and his grades. Now, he is hoping to go to Howard University in Washington D.C. to study computer science.

This year, at least 70 underprivileged students--who, like Benson, thought they could never advance beyond a high school education--are planning to go to colleges such as Howard, Rutgers, Brandeis, and Harvard. These teenagers from Cambridge, Somerville, and Roxbury are students in Harvard's Upward Bound, a program which supplements their public high school education. The program tries to send to college bright high school students, especially minorities, who have never been encouraged to achieve academically. It attempts to challenge these teenagers in much the same way Outward Bound challenges people to reach their physical limits.

Run by administrators from the School of Education, Harvard's Upward Bound is one of five in the Boston area. It was begun sixteen years ago and is entirely dependent on grants from the federal government--funding that is currently endangered by threatened budget cuts.

Applicants for the approximately 25 spaces open each year in the program must go through an extensive weeding-out process. First, the students--who must have completed at least one year of secondary schooling--must have a recommendation from one of their public school administrators or teachers. Then, they must undergo an interview with project manager, Dorothy Bowen, an Ed School administrator.

The purpose of this interview, says Bowen "is to find out what the student's own motivational needs are," as well as why the student wants to join the program, and what he or she hopes to get out of it. Students are then given a series of tests examining various skills.

"We don't rely on the student's high school transcripts," Bowen emphasizes. "They just are not a good indicator of the student's level. It's very easy for a student to go through four years of high school and just sit in class and get A's and B's."

Adds Bowen: "If a student is a sophomore and is still reading on a third grade level, we need to know that--to see how much time we have in working with them to build them up to the level they should be on by the time they graduate."

Once a student has been accepted by Upward Bound, he or she continues to go to his public school, while being tutored over at the program's Garden Street offices at least twice a week. Undergraduates from Harvard and other area schools, as well as some public school teachers, serve as the tutors. Tutoring sessions can last up to five hours a day, in the various subjects the student is currently studying at school.

We act just as a high school does except that we can give a lot more individualized attention than the schools do," says Bowen. "We act much like a private school."

The program's biggest investment comes with the summer, when the administrators pack the 70 students off for six weeks of an intensive summer school-like program at Curry College in Blue Hills. Here, students take a series of courses in the high school subjects they have the most trouble with--whether math, English, or chemistry.

What's more, Bowen emphasizes, this is the time when the bonds are most closely formed between student and teacher. "We do everything with them--sleep, eat and work," she says. "After six weeks of living with someone, you get to know their habits."

The intensity of the program has evidently paid off. According to the statistics, 90 percent of the students go on to college, while out of that number 65 percent finish their higher education.

But while the emphasis of the program is on academic rigor, many of the past and present program participates say that work is not the only important aspect of Upward Bound. Indeed, both students and administrations see the program as an important "support system" for uncertain high scholars.

"Essentially, it was some support more than anything else," recalls Eve Yee Wah Ng '84, a former Upward Boundr. "There was someone on your back to give you a mudge and make you not going on your work."

Many students associated with the program credit that extra "mudge" as the encouragement they needed to by college. Cambridge Rindge and Latia senior Paul Poindester, who has been with the program for three years, says he probably wouldn't have even thought of applying to Reagers, as he is now, if he had not joined Upward Bound.

"Maybe I could have done in on my own if I had tried," he muses. But when his tutor, Brandois senior Carol Lee asks, "But would you have tried without Upward Bound?" he shakes his head.

For her part, Bowen is rather cautions about making grand claims for the program . "We are more of a support system than anything else, like a stepping stone from high school to college which gives the students the incentive they need to work," she says.

"The high schools are not pushing the students and not giving them the opportunities that I feel the students really warrant," she adds. "They are not concerned about what happens to students after they get their high school diplomas."

Bowen cites a core staff which has been together for over eight years as the primary reason the Harvard program works so successfully. Indeed, many of the former students find themselves returning to Upward Bound to either teach or tutor; Bowen herself was a student and then a tutor with the program.

Bowen says that after three years of working with the kids, the emotional attachment often becomes stronger than academic need, and that the administrators often become like surrogate mothers and fathers for the students.

"They realize that they have a friend with us and not just someone who sits behind a desk. Even the parents know they can come to use with any type of problem. We have gained a rapport with them that is very important...I was just on vacation and I had one student call me up when I got back and ask,' Dottle, how could you leave me.'"

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