Press Room Headlines
ABC's of aiming high
The Mainline Times
By JOEL FRAM
Three very bright and sociable Lower Merion High School students recently discussed their lives and their hopes for the future, as all LM students do from time to time. But these three are unlike their classmates in one key respect: none of them has a permanent Main Line address. Tobi Ajirotutu, a junior, is from East New York, Brooklyn. Jonathan Huang, a sophomore, is from Cornwall, CT.
Jonathan Viera, a senior, grew up in the South Bronx, though his mother has moved to Massachusetts.
The three are residents of A Better Chance in Lower Merion, a residential college preparatory program that makes it possible for gifted and motivated minority students to attend high schools that are academically stronger than those in their hometowns. A national program founded in 1963, ABC-Lower Merion was established in 1972.
The three-story ABC House in Ardmore is home to seven students, supervised by a resident director and assisted by two resident tutors. The students' prospects for college acceptance and success are markedly better as a result of their attending LMHS, which is rated one of the best high schools in the state.
ABC in Lower Merion is supported entirely by donations from citizens, businesses, foundations and service organizations in the community. ABC's resident director, Theresa Gaskin, and her husband, Jon, serve as surrogate parents for the boys. She's unabashedly proud of them, even though she occasionally has to urge them to clean up after themselves, do their chores and not leave their stuff downstairs. "We try to make it as family-oriented as we can," she says.
The Gaskins' 11-year-old daughter, Kayla, is part of the family. She was shy and quiet before they moved to the house in 2005; now, say her parents, she readily speaks up for herself.
To gain acceptance to ABC, Viera, 18. Ajirotutu, 16, and Huang,15, went through a selection process not unlike a college admission, including submitting essays and being interviewed. The process seeks students who are not only academically strong but also highly motivated. In the case of these three, the process clearly worked. They speak about the benefits of the program with the same enthusiasm that many of their contemporaries would reserve for a new video game or their cell phone's features. "It's outstanding," says Viera, citing the quality of teaching at LM and the school's resources. "Compared to the public school system in the Bronx, it's just incredible."
Outside the classroom, Lower Merion is also much different from what the three grew up with, physically, culturally and socially. For one thing, say New Yorkers Arijotutu and Viera, it's quieter. And, Ajirotutu adds, much less public transportation is available. "Here, the main mode of transportation is walking," he says.
Ajirotutu and Huang say they had no significant difficulties in adjusting to life at Lower Merion or in fitting in with other students, many of whom have known each other since kindergarten. "It wasn't too hard for me to make friends, says Ajirotutu. "I'm naturally social." It wasn't as easy for Viera, however, who says that he was homesick his first year, when he was a freshman. "It was a rough, rough, rough year, he says, and he considered leaving. His mother, however, insisted that he stay. "I'm totally glad she did," he says now. Viera became a cheerleader and recently acted in LM's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, playing Judge Hathorne. "He's just blossomed in this program," says Gaskin.
Huang and Ajirotutu pursue extra-curricular activities as well. Huang is a member of the Lower Merion swim team. Ajirotutu is a JV basketball player. (Among his prize possessions is a pair of sneakers signed by a previous LM basketball player, Kobe Bryant, class of 1996. When Viera suggested that the shoes could fetch a good price on eBay, Ajirotutu quickly replied that he has no intention of selling them.)
And what is life like with seven high school boys living under one roof? "It can be chaotic," says Viera. "It can be frustrating." But he's not complaining. "The guys are really, really close," he says. "We like each other, like we're brothers. It feels like a family." That's unsolicited testimony that the Gaskins' efforts are paying off.
The bedrooms at ABC range from surprisingly neat to teenage messy. Huang, a movie buff, has put up posters for Scarface and Godfather. Viera's wall has a large Puerto Rican banner and a flag.
To enrich the kids' down time, the house has a rec room in the basement with a pool table, weights and an Xbox. And the food? "Amazing," says Viera. But then he adds that the cook was serving potatoes every day until the kids complained that they were getting tired of them; instead, she's now serving pasta every day, and kids are getting tired of that, too.
Discussion of food led to a quick debate between Huang and Viera about whose mother made the best rice. They agreed to disagree.
ABC students' trips home are generally limited to the holidays. If students go home too often, says Ajirotutu, "you really lose the experience." And modern technology makes it easy to keep in touch with friends and family through e-mails and instant messaging.
After graduation, Viera plans to go into conservation biology; he has already been accepted by the University of New Hampshire, which has an impressive program in the field. Huang decided to enter medicine years ago, moved by his parents' trying experience when his younger sister, who was born prematurely, spent months in an incubator. She's doing fine now, and has become an enthusiastic pole vaulter.
Ajirotutu doesn't know what field he wants to pursue, though it's not for lack of interests: he mentions physical therapy, communications, the movie industry and doing talk shows. He plays the drums and "a little bit of guitar and piano," paints and draws. "He's a really good artist," says Viera.
The experience of living at ABC in Lower Merion has not, however, inspired any of the three to want to live on the Main Line in the future. "I don't think it's the place for me," says Viera. Ajirotutu prefers New York. And Huang, a Patriots fan, says he's not sure he could ever cheer for the Eagles.
Though they may not return to live here, all three will no doubt carry positive memories of Lower Merion High School and the opportunities it made available to them throughout their lifetimes.
A Better Chance is part of a national network founded in 1963 that currently has enrolled 1,400 minority students in 225 member schools. Though the house in Lower Merion accommodates only boys, others are co-ed. For more information, or to make a tax-deductible contribution to ABC in Lower Merion, visit www.abelm.com or call (610) 649-1858.
© Mainline Times 2007
A Better Chance
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Phone (646) 346-1310, Fax (646) 346-1311