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Prep for Prep: Giving Kids a Chance
Angelina Elizabeth Darrisaw
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"Excellence, Commitment, Integrity, Courage." These four words are the motto of Prep for Prep, a nonprofit organization in New York City that places bright, motivated minority students into private schools.

Gary Simons founded the program after 12 years of teaching elementary school in a very poor area of the South Bronx. He was troubled, he said, by "the lack of motivation that so many kids developed because they knew the system wasn't working for them."

Still, every year he found students willing to work hard and eager to achieve. And he knew these students deserved a chance.

Homework and More Homework

When Prep started in 1978, the Prep community consisted of only 25 students and three teachers. Now more than 3,500 5th and 6th graders test for admission to the program. About 154 students are admitted and only about 79% of those complete the rigorous 14 months of academic training called the Preparatory Component.

The program officers look for intelligent students whom they feel have a good chance at succeeding. "We look for clear indication of high intellectual ability," said Mr. Simons. "There isn't one specific personality, but we look for traits that indicate ambition, a willingness to work hard, and an interest in learning."

Once they get in, Prep students spend the summer before their 6th or 7th grade taking classes not normally offered in public junior high schools, like Latin and an extensive research class. There's often several hours of homework a night, which at first is stressful, but prepares students for the hard work in the school year ahead.

During the school year, students have to manage the heavy Prep workload-there are classes after school and on Saturday-as well as keep their grades up in their public school.

The next summer, there are more thought-provoking classes like Invictus, a class on social responsibility, and Problems and Issues in Modern American Society. Prep wants their students to be leaders and solve societal problems.

Feeling Like a Minority

The September after their second summer, Prep students begin private school. Some go to boarding schools in the tri-state area and New England, and others stay in New York City. These small, elite private schools, whose students are mostly White and upper middle class or rich, present an environment completely different from the ones most Prep kids live in.

And sometimes that's difficult for Prep students to deal with. Putting young minority students in elite, private schools often makes them feel even more like minorities. It's hard not to be aware that you're the only person of color in a classroom.

Being placed in these schools opens Prep students' eyes early to the realities of privilege, and how those who have it take money and connections for granted. Being confronted by these issues of race and class can be hard to handle, and some Prep students shut down. They stop being social or don't focus on learning.

Why Not Stuy?

Then why can't the students who go through Prep go instead to highly academic schools like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant? Some do, but Erin Duffy, director of the Preparatory Component, said it's important that the Prep students go to private schools.

"If the Prep kids went to Stuyvesant, they'd be at the top of the class, but Harvard wouldn't accept 20 kids from Stuyvesant," she said. "By spreading kids around, it opens up their college prospects." Also, New York City's private schools have smaller classes and strong networks that provide important connections before and after college.

After completing the program, I felt that I'd do just fine with or without Prep. I'm focused and like many other Prep students, I have support and people pushing me to succeed from every direction.

Prep Gives Direction

But it's not like that for everyone. Raygine DiAqoui, head of the Summer Advisory System, said, "If I didn't go through Prep, I probably wouldn't have even finished high school. I mean, I would have been just straight Flatbush, you know."

Raygine is now a junior at Columbia University. Prep gave her the support and direction she needed.

"I think Prep has definitely shown me what equal opportunity can do for people," Raygine said. "There are really few people in the world who realize intelligence is not what separates us, opportunity is." Prep gives students that opportunity.

For more information, check out the Prep For Prep website at www.prepforprep.org or call 212-579-1470.

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(NYC-2002-09-11a)

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