Saturday, September 17, 2005

Muffy And Bootsy Get Some Roommates

Miss Porter's School, one of the most elite girls' prep schools in the nation, is enrolling girls from the Hartford, Connecticut public school system as part of a program to send some of Hartford's most able high school students to private preparatory schools:
Sabina Smajlovic has only been at Miss Porter's school for a few weeks, but she's already left her mark. It's a ritual called rocking out.

Each night, after a grueling day of classes, a mandatory two-hour study hall and sports practices, she leads a dance party in her dorm. With The Beach Boys or Eminem blaring from speakers, hair starts swinging and the giggling starts.

"I don't know what you would call it. Crazy," says Sabina, shaking her head and yawning the morning after. "You get a bad hairdo after that."

The dance party is a stress reliever for Sabina and her classmates -or "new girls," as they call them here- as they navigate their way through their first year of private school. Back home in Hartford, city officials and Sabina's family hope she's finding the way to her future.

The city is in the first year of a multimillion-dollar program to send Hartford public school students to private schools.

Officials hope that the private schools' powerful networks of friends, educators and alumni will help increase college admissions for city high school graduates by 25 percent by 2009. Just 82 of 790 high school graduates from the class of 2003 enrolled full time in college, city officials said.

"It's unacceptable that we don't have 70, 80 percent of our kids thinking, preparing themselves and succeeding going off to four-year colleges. That's where we need to be," said Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, a former gang leader who was the first in his family to attend college. "They're called prep schools for a reason, because they prep you for the next stage."

Some of the nation's most elite prep schools are located in Connecticut. Seventeen schools are offering $11 million in financial aid specifically for Hartford students, and a new private foundation is trying to raise more. Tuition at the schools ranges from about $8,000 to as much as $35,000, and officials hope to put dozens of kids through the program each year.

Sabina's family is grateful for the opportunity. They emigrated five years ago from war-torn Bosnia to the United States. Sabina, then a fourth-grader, didn't speak a word of English. Now she's fluent and earned straight As at Hartford's Dr. James H. Naylor School.

At Miss Porter's, she enters an elite, all-girls, college-style campus that counts Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among its alumnae.

"That's why we came to America, to make our kids special," said Sabina's mother, Sifa Smajlovic. "We never spent a night without her ... it hurt a lot. But we were looking forward for her future."

A scholarship for a postgraduate year at Suffield Academy is helping Luis Gomez figure out his college plans. Eventually, he said, he might like to play professional football or work with animals.

Gomez, who grew up in Hartford's South End after moving from Puerto Rico, has noticed the differences from city classrooms.

"In regular school, you just go to school and many times, there's a lot of people trying to encourage you to probably skip and just hang out and not go to class or whatever," he said. "Here, they actually encourage you to go to class, do your homework and work together and all that. So you learn more and do better."

Hartford schools are widely regarded as some of the worst in Connecticut. Plagued by low test scores, the district has also been involved in a long-standing court fight to desegregate its classrooms.

But Perez's initiative has not been universally embraced. Robert E. Long, president of the city's Board of Education, said he's worried the program will remove the city's most promising students from public schools. Public education should provide a level playing field for all students, he said.

"How do you pick kids? Who picks them? We can all pick those kids out that we think are special, you know? I was a teacher myself; I could pick out kids and see who should go. It's 'You get in the lifeboat, you get in the lifeboat, nope. You don't have a seat in the lifeboat,"' he said.

Hartford students must meet stringent admissions criteria to enter the private schools. Potential candidates for admission must be identified by the spring of eighth grade.

Charlie Cahn, the headmaster and a former admissions counselor at Suffield Academy, said Perez's office should employ someone to help families through the long admissions process.

"It's almost the opposite of what I usually see. Usually, you see great kids and schools that don't have enough financial aid to help them," he said. "And here what we're seeing is money has been committed up front with the schools. Now the challenge is to identify and support families through the process."

But students who have gone through the process say they love their new schools. Sabina is on the volleyball team and balances a rigorous academic schedule that includes chorus, physics, algebra, Spanish and ethics classes. She said her classes are harder than in public school, but the teachers are helping her. And though she struggles to get her textbook-filled backpack from class to class, most of the time she's running to catch up with her new friends.
Gosh. The school that educated Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is now allowing plebeians in it's hallowed classrooms. What's next? Entry to Ivy League universities and elite women's colleges based solely upon some sort of objective criterion (such as a competitive examination) and without any consideration of one's pedigree?

Update: (PM) Commenter Expat Nomad asks some good questions:
Shouldn't this be sending up red flags all over the place? Why is the state of Connecticut putting students in private schools? Are they admitting that their public schools don't get kids ready for college or are unable to prepare kids properly for the next step?
View this week's Carnival of Education, guest hosted by Ms. Frizzle, right here. Next week's midway will open here at 'The Wonks next Wednesday. Submissions are due by 9:00 PM (Pacific) Tuesday, September 20th. Send them to owlshome [at] earthlink [dot] net.

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