Have you heard of Prep for Prep? It's a brilliant idea realized.
Here's how it works: Every year for the past thirty years, approximately 150 low-income New York fifth- and seventh-grade superstars are plucked from their presumably limited public school environments and placed, after an extremely intensive 14-month preparation and on full scholarship, into the top independent schools in New York (Trinity, Collegiate, Brearley...) and the top boarding schools (Exeter, Choate, Phillips Academy...) around the country. All of the students go on to amazing colleges: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, you name it. Private fundraising fuels the whole operation.
Recently, I had the privilege to attend Prep for Prep's annual Lilac Ball fundraiser/graduation ceremony in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. All of the graduating seniors were there, dressed to the nines, as well as about 700 attendees who had gone in for the $1,000-a-plate ticket.
By any standard, the graduating Prep seniors impress.
During the cocktail hour, I chatted with an eighteen-year-old Prep graduate who was preparing to attend NYU, my alma mater, to study literature in the fall. He eagerly told me about how he'd just finished independently reading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov--The Brothers K, as he called it-- and that his big summer project for himself was Ulysses. I told him that I barely staggered through that titanic book despite the support of a special college class titled "Reading James Joyce's Ulysses," and avidly recommended a glorified Cliff Notes text called The New Bloomsday Book for some guidance. He listened politely, but I could tell he wanted to tackle it all on his own. God bless him.
The presentation during dinner featured several student speakers, each charmingly sharing his or her poignant stories of going to lengths to seize the opportunities before them. One senior's mother ran on the stage to embrace her when she spoke of being accepted to Harvard after six years working until 2 a.m. almost every night. A video showed Prep graduates excelling in medicine and law, seeking to give back to their community and to mind the maxim, "To whom much is given, much is expected."
It was truly moving, and Prep for Prep's donors--specifically honoree and BlackRock CEO Lawrence Fink--deserve much praise for granting golden tickets to so many brilliant young minds. The evening made clear that the donors opened the doors of access, but the students more than earned their opportunities with hard work and achievement.
Yes, Prep for Prep deserves to be celebrated--although it is only able to accommodate 150 students per year, or .01% of all of the fifth- and seventh-graders eligible to apply. The other 99.99% of public school students remain in the public system, where the likelihood of receiving a perpetually challenging, stimulating, potential-realizing education is--to say the least--far from assured.
Our public school system has the resources--human and financial, teacher and student-- to harness more from gifted, driven youths. We need our schools to be able to say truthfully to students: "If you are willing to work your heart out and make education your priority, you will be richly rewarded with opportunities." That's the best of the American dream. Right now, the tacit message of so many schools is actually: "You have to go through the motions here because that's the way it's always been. School is good, and if you're not into it, shape up or ship out." Hardly inspiring. A recent report by the Fordham Institute confirms that many gifted public school students are languishing needlessly.
America needs a sea change in attitude--a groundswell of will-- to fight the social class opportunity gap. Maybe a glimpse at Prep for Prep's success can enliven us to demand more opportunities for more hardworking children--not just a fortunate, though eminently deserving, few.
You can donate to Prep for Prep here.
You can pick a public school classroom project to fund at DonorsChoose.org.
Dan Brown is a teacher in the Bronx and the author of the memoir, "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."