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Their Chance to Shine - The Boston Globe
Program at Masconomet High helps blaze college path for urban minority teens
by David Cogger
Decked out in a red Ecko Unlimited T-shirt, baggy jeans, and a pair of Jordans, Adam Farward drops one shot after another from outside the paint through the basketball hoop. As he runs off the gym floor at Masconomet Regional High School, he boasts: "You're looking at the future of the NBA."
Farward is one of five minority students attending high school in Topsfield as part of A Better Chance, a residential program for academically talented youth from underserved communities often plagued by drugs and violence. At many other high schools, Farward and his fellow ABC classmates would blend right in, but Masco is not exactly the United Nations.
ABC plucks some of the best and brightest from urban areas and offers them a chance to live in places such as Topsfield and enroll in college preparatory high schools and boarding schools. Masco has been involved with ABC since 1973 and has graduated 60 students, all male because of housing limitations. It is the only public school in the northern suburbs involved in the program.
Kenneth Karas is a typical, high-achieving Masco senior. He's a standout on the school's varsity wrestling team, an award-winning artist, and he has dreams that include becoming a doctor. Karas is in the midst of that nervous time waiting for offers of admission to college. He has his heart set on attending Northeastern.
Unlike most of his classmates, Karas did not grow up in the leafy suburbs of Boxford, Middleton, or Topsfield. His childhood was spent on the mean streets of the Bronx. He currently lives in a historic home in downtown Topsfield with the other ABC students, and houseparents Jim and Gretchen Vaillancourt, who have an infant son, Noah.
Thomas Bennett, nicknamed "T," a 24-year-old 2001 graduate of the Masco ABC program, is the boys' live-in tutor, mentor, and role model. Bennett went on to graduate from Amherst College and recently was accepted to Tufts University Medical School, bringing closer to reality his dream of opening a clinic in one of the underserved neighborhoods back home in New York.
Bennett's story is not atypical of those who participate in the ABC program. His mother suffered from manic depression, and Bennett lived with his grandmother before arriving in Topsfield. He was a talented kid who lacked focus and motivation, mostly because of his environment.
When Bennett was selected for the ABC program, his life changed. He can help others make the transition, he said, because he's been there.
"The weight on these kids is that they represent their home neighborhoods," he said. "Kids look at them and think they are hoodlums or gang-bangers, when, in fact, they're some of the best kids. It can be isolating; their social and academic backgrounds are so different."
Bennett said the best thing about Masco and other public school ABC programs is that the whole community is behind it. Each student visits with an assigned host family in the Tri-town area one weekend a month and for dinner every Wednesday evening.
Karas has spent the last four years achieving. He recently won a Gold Key for his portfolio of mixed-media portraits and sketches in The Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards, and took first place in his weight class in the Cape Ann League wrestling tournament.
"I wasn't thrilled at first, as I had already made plans to go to art school in New York," he said of relocating to Topsfield. "But I like it now because of the small-town atmosphere and the friends I have made."
Some of his friends back in New York have slipped through the cracks, Karas said. "I have a friend back in the Bronx who dropped out of school. He can't get a job and spends all of his time in front of the television. A lot of my friends back home are not doing so well now."
When Karas was 2 years old, his father died. He credits his mother with setting him on the right path.
"No matter where you grow up, there will be bad things," he said. "It's all about what you choose to do with your circumstances."
Masco guidance counselor Michael Novello has been impressed with all of the teens from the ABC Program and what they have contributed to the school.
"They commit to moving away from home as freshmen, to live in Topsfield, and attend Masconomet," Novello stated in an e-mail. "I am always amazed and impressed that kids can do that so successfully at such a young age.
"While they are here, the fact that there is a constant 'sharing' of sociological experiences between the ABC kids and Tri-town kids really helps to open both their eyes to the reality of how stereotypes can many times be all wrong."
Angel Cruz is the comedian in the group. The 14-year-old freshman exudes confidence, saying he wants to go to Yale, but may decide against it because the school lacks a top-level baseball program.
Cruz said he likes to eat and play sports. Baseball and football are his favorites. ABC requires that all of the students participate in sports as long as they are physically able.
Cruz's mother is a taskmaster with high expectations for her only son.
"In New York, I had to take care of myself. Mom trusted me to take the subway to school in Harlem starting in the third grade."
Cruz finds idyllic Topsfield amusing. His host family lives on Blueberry Lane. "Can't you imagine that as a set for a TV show?" he asked with a wry smile. "And the downtown! I can't believe it's even called a downtown."
Cruz loves the Wednesday evenings and one weekend a month he spends with the Feltaults, his host family.
"Angel is a joy," said Mary Feltault, Angel's host mother. Her daughters, Emily and Maura, would like to see Angel give up the pinstripes and become a Red Sox fan, but they enjoy having him around. Host brother Bobby just likes having a younger brother.
"I just love it here," said 16-year-old Andres Figueroa. "I was born in Boston but moved around a lot. I was closed-minded growing up in Lawrence and didn't realize where I could live because of where I was. I'm trying to erase that part of my life from my memory."
In Lawrence, Figueroa said he was popular for all of the wrong reasons. "I hurt certain people because I wanted to be the guy everybody liked. I just did stupid stuff."
Today, Figueroa is a manic text messenger. Looking at his cellphone, he said he has seven new text messages. It's how he keeps track of the many friends he has met at Masco.
"I want to be remembered as a guy who really looked out for his friends."
Figueroa aspires to be an actor and has even picked out a stage name, which remains a secret. He has been in summer theater programs, and, when he becomes an actor, he wants to call on some of the emotions he has experienced growing up and living in Topsfield.
"When I dream, I see a red carpet; I see huge lights and neon."
Adam Farward is a gifted athlete born with three holes in his heart. On doctor's orders, he is not allowed to play organized sports. The pickup games in the driveway and at the gym are consolation.
But Farward is not the kind of kid to let health problems keep him from making a contribution. He volunteers at the Steward Elementary School in Topsfield, working with children in kindergarten through second grade. And he is focused on his dream of working as a designer in the automobile industry, and his love of classic cars.
"I'd like to own a '67 Firebird - maybe study design or engineering at [New York University or Universal Technical Institute]," he said.
For Farward, Topsfield has been a difficult adjustment. He said it is not that exciting, and he misses 42d Street, where he used to go with his father to buy shoes.
"I like shoes. I have eight pairs.
"It was real different coming here. It's good to go home and see friends in New York. Masco is to benefit my future. There is a high expectation for me. My mom is very proud of me, and she wouldn't like it if I dropped out."
Alex Camarena is laid back - a quiet 14-year-old freshman whose favorite time of day is dinner.
But beneath the calm, Camarena is ambitious. He has his sites set on MIT.
"I spend three hours a night studying. Math is my best subject. I want to be an engineer, or a football player," he said with an infectious grin.
For Camarena, the academic environment in Topsfield is a challenge.
"Back in New York, I was at the top of my class. But here it's different."
Similar to some of his housemates, Camarena said his mother has been his rudder throughout life.
"She's calm, but she can be tough" - qualities that appear to have been passed on.
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.
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