STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: (From left) A Better Chance’s Eric Chesterton, Sharon Warner and Patty Krisch, with the boys at the Ardmore ABC house//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Dinner time is 6 o’clock sharp. By then, the boys at the long table are hungry enough to tear through their roasted chicken, potatoes and salad. There’s talk about an upcoming Spanish test and a review of homework. Someone rushes off to basketball practice. Everyone else clears the table, then scatters to their rooms.
It’s normal family stuff—except that this is a family bonded not by blood, but by brains.
The eight boys who live in this Ardmore house are part of A Better Chance, a national program that has educated more than 14,000 students, all of them minorities of color who grew up in poor neighborhoods with failing schools.
Like the boys and girls who live in similar houses in Radnor and Swarthmore, these kids are smart and ambitious, so much so that they survived ABC’s rigorous application process. At stake are spots in the country’s best private schools—think Spence, Choate, Phillips Exeter, Episcopal, Shipley and Tower Hill—and the financial aid to afford them. ABC is also behind Community School Programs, through which students live, all expenses paid, in boarding-school-style homes in great public school districts, including Lower Merion, Radnor and Swarthmore.
Created in 1963, ABC is funded by private donors, and it has the cooperation of private and public school administrators who welcome its scholars into their ranks. ABC alumni include former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman, Google managing director Torrence Boone, and a host of doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
ABC’s all-boys Ardmore house was established in 1973. Its scholars attend Lower Merion High School. Much of the Ardmore chapter’s past and present are detailed in a new book, A House Alive With Words, written and self-published by Patricia Zita Krisch, a member of the board of directors since 1995. Krisch is a onetime president of the Home and School Association at Lower Merion High School, which her daughter attended.
ABC’s mission hit home with Krisch. While earning her doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, she worked with a YMCA outreach project that targeted kids in gangs. It was the early 1960s, right about the time ABC was formed, and Chicago’s neighborhoods were deeply divided by race and income. “It was quite a revelation about what can happen to kids early on, in both positive and negative ways,” says Krisch. “The impact of their environment is tremendous.”
Environment is such a factor in students’ success that ABC transplants them to schools away from their homes. Of the eight boys in the Ardmore house, seven are from New York, and one is from Delaware. That’s not a slight on their parents, Krisch explains, but an effort to replicate the boarding-school experience.
“The goal is to immerse them in a new environment so that they can concentrate on school and school-related activities,” Krisch says.
And they do. Davon Collins is the Ardmore ABC house’s newest arrival, the only freshman accepted this year. The 14-year- old is from Brooklyn, where he was in the top of his class at a KIPP charter school (Knowledge Is Power Program).
At Lower Merion, Collins’ schedule is jam-packed with challenging classes, and he joined the debate club, the National Society of Black Engineers, the swim team, and Players, the school theater group. Collins is also in student council; he was president of the freshman class.
Freshman year was difficult for Joshua Plummer. Now a 16-year-old senior, Plummer had excelled at his Bronx middle school without exerting much effort. Academics at Lower Merion were tough. ABC houses have live-in tutors who are there to address this specific issue. They teach study skills to kids who are used to acing tests without breaking a sweat.
Once Plummer put his nose firmly into the books, his grades improved dramatically. And he got interested in subjects he’d never encountered in middle school, like French and Japanese. Looking back, Plummer says, the initial struggle taught him a valuable lesson. “There were a lot of resources available to me that I wasn’t using,” he says. “I learned that it wasn’t a bad thing to admit when I need help and ask for it.”
The social transition can also be difficult. Entering a new school without a pre-existing clique would be tough for any student—and Lower Merion is bigger and more modern than anything the boys had ever seen.
“My first impression was that it was High School Musical meets Mean Girls,” Collins says. “Here’s this amazing school that looks like it came out of a Hollywood movie, but are these other kids going to torture me?”
Collins and Plummer made friends quickly—after they got over their culture shock. Asked to identify the toughest parts of acclimating, the boys name the same things: race and suburban life. “I’d never met white people before I came here,” Plummer says. “My neighborhood was black and Latino. There were white teachers, but not many. When I got here, I thought I had to approach white people differently than black people and be careful about how I acted and what I said. But no one was putting that on me; it was pretty much all in my head. Still, it took me a while to feel comfortable.”
It was the same for Collins, whose Brooklyn neighborhood is solidly Caribbean. He describes it as a flavorful enclave for newly immigrated Jamaicans, Dominicans and others.
“I’m used to walking down the street and smelling rice and beans cooking, and hearing the music that people are playing while they sit on their stoops,” Collins says. “Here, it’s quiet. To see people raking leaves in their front yard is bizarre for me. But it’s not a bad thing.”
Nor is having friends who drive nice cars and live in fabulous homes. Collins laughs about the first time a student offered him a ride home in a BMW. Shocked at first, he got used to it quickly. As for having the “right” clothes and shoes, the boys say that’s not a problem.
“We’re from New York, where style is the thing, no matter how poor you are,” Collins says. “Sneakers, clothes, haircut—you have got to be fly. It’s your personal statement. On my first day of school at Lower Merion, kids stopped me in the hall to compliment what I was wearing.”
As the boys are well aware, Lower Merion High is a training ground for what they will encounter in college. Krisch details in her book how ABC grads face new challenges once they leave the supportive environment of the program. Not all of them make it through college.
“It’s another transition to another new school and community. And while that’s a time of change for all college freshmen, ABC scholars have lived a pretty scheduled, supervised life for their four years of high school,” she explains. “In college, they are much more on their own.”
Plummer hints that some recent Ardmore ABC graduates have had difficulties at college. But even cautionary tales are helpful, he says, because they help prepare him for what he may encounter. Plummer wants to pursue a degree in computer science. He’s awaiting word on the early-decision applications he sent to more than 10 colleges in the Northeast.
Plummer also has a long list of scholarships for which he’ll apply. Whatever the next chapter brings, he’s ready.