Press Room Headlines
Away from home, a chance to shine
The Boston Globe
By Megan Tench
It started as an experiment in 1963, the height of the civil rights movement: Select children from the country's roughest neighborhoods and move them at the ages of 13 and 14 into the nation's finest public and private schools. Today the program, A Better Chance, boasts over 11,000 alumni, including Governor Deval Patrick, who credits his experience at Milton Academy with setting him on the path to become the state's first black governor. In Massachusetts, students at 35 schools continue the tradition -- and three share their stories with Globe staff reporter Megan Tench about learning so far away from home.
Three years ago, when Rashad Rabsatt (above) packed his bags and moved into a dormitory full of mostly affluent boys in a picturesque community in Marion, a few miles from Cape Cod, Rabsatt could barely sleep at all. (Essdras Suarez/ Globe Staff)
RASHARD RABSATT, 17
Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.
Tabor Academy, Marion
'The sounds of screeching taxis, police sirens, bustling street corners, and the occasional crackle of gunshots were like bedtime lullabies to Rashard Rabsatt, who grew up in a small apartment in the Bronx.
But three years ago, when the teen packed his bags, kissed his mother on the cheek, and moved into a dormitory full of mostly affluent boys in a picturesque beachside community in Marion, a few miles from Cape Cod, Rabsatt could barely sleep at all.
"I was like, 'What is that noise?' " he recalled recently. "Crickets. Crickets chirping. That was the first time I ever heard that."
That was nearly four years ago. Rabsatt traded his baggy jeans and T-shirt for a tie and blazer at the sprawling private school, where he is now the vice president of the student council and an athlete on the track and football teams.
"Leaving my mom was really tough," he said. "And coming here, to a totally new environment, a new culture. . . . It is a tight-knit community. I have done things I never thought I could do. My old schools didn't have any sports at all. I also have friends from all over. My roommate is from Bombay!"
But going back home and seeing old friends isn't always easy.
"I've been told I've changed, especially the way I speak," he said, nodding his head. "One of my friends said, 'What are you? A white guy?' I ignore it. When you have an opportunity to make something out of yourself, you take advantage of it."
JESSICA SPATES, 16
Andover High School, Andover
When she first arrived at Andover High School, Jessica Spates knew she stuck out in the crowd: She is 6 feet 2 inches tall. Her mother is German, her father is African-American. And she's from a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Manhattan.
"When I got here, kids used to always ask me, 'Have you ever shot anyone?' " Spates recalled, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
For Spates, accepting a scholarship from A Better Chance and moving to Andover at 13 became less and less about whether she would ever get used to a quiet New England suburb and more about whether her new classmates would ever get used to her.
"I was sort of used to being an outcast," Spates said, laughing. "But you can't really take comments like that to heart, because if I do it would just irritate me and prevent me from doing what I need to be doing while I'm here."
Spates hopes to study criminology in college, but for now, she is embracing what life in New England has to offer : She has skied in Maine and toured Martha's Vineyard.
"I've wanted to go to a boarding school since I was 5 years old," she said. "And I feel that after this experience, living in a dorm full of girls, going to a school outside my comfort zone, I'll have no problem transitioning to college. I'm ready."
LYDIA BAILEY, 17
Hometown: East Orange, N.J.
Andover High School, Andover
As Lydia Bailey was preparing to return to Andover High from a break during her junior year, her friend was shot in the head just a few blocks away from Bailey's doorstep in East Orange, N.J.
"I saw her that day, before it happened," Bailey recalled with a heavy sigh. "I told her, 'I'll be back.' That's the last time I saw her. That's when I really, really realized, life is too short. If I have an advantage, I'm going to take it. Thousands of people would want to be in my place."
Bailey remembers the day she first got the phone call about A Better Chance -- and her life and address changed.
"It was May, the end of the year, I came home from school and my mom said, 'We're moving to Massachusetts!' I was like, 'No way!' Of course, she was kidding about all of us moving here. It was just me."
She was 14 when she moved into a white framed house on Main Street in Andover that has been used as the ABC resident dormitory for the past 40 years.
Once a week, she shares a meal with a host family from Merrimack Valley who helps her navigate her new home away from home. Bailey sees her mother and siblings during school vacations or weekends, if she can.
"This is like an MTV 'Real World' experience," she said, laughing. "I live in a house with 11 girls. The first thing the dorm parents said is that we had to do chores! We formed a real tight-knit bond, like sisters. We are always together."
Bailey received high marks in middle school, and her guidance counselor urged her to apply for A Better Chance scholarship. Since she joined the program, she said, her path is clear.
"Now, it's not whether I'm going to college," she said. "It's which one."
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