I had the great privilege of attending the annual Prep for Prep "Lilac Ball" last night at the Waldorf-Astoria here in New York. This ball doubles as the graduation for students in the Prep for Prep program, a 30-year-old campaign to prepare the brightest minority students in New York City for admission to independent prep schools (day or boarding). Prep for Prep continues to monitor their students' progress while they attend Andover, Choate, Dalton, etc., with the hope that these students will attend elite colleges.
It seems to be working. Among the roughly 150 high school seniors walking across the stage last night, a dozen are going to Yale, eight (I counted) are going to Harvard, and many others to Princeton, Columbia, Duke, MIT, Stanford, etc. I got a little teary when Learah Lockhart, the daughter of a single mom, talked about how she had been working until 2AM as a 7th grader getting ready to go to Choate. She didn't want to leave her mother to go to boarding school, but her mother insisted. Her mom always kept her school papers with good grades in a box by her bed. As Learah said, in April, she got something that was definitely box-worthy. At this point, she read us the letter offering her admission to Harvard.
(Of course, knowing how hard this young lady worked to get to where she is in life, it kind of ticked me off to know -- according to Daniel Golden's book The Price of Admission -- that Albert Gore III got into Harvard despite being suspended in 8th grade for smoking marijuana, being cited during high school for driving 100mph, and not getting particularly good grades or test scores. While a student at Harvard, he was ticketed for driving under the influence, and was also later charged with marijuana possession. But I digress).
Children are chosen for admission to the Prep for Prep program based, initially, on having test scores above the 90th percentile. From my discussions with people in the program, this seems to be a pretty hard fast line. Then once they make this initial cut, they give these children (drum roll please)... an IQ test! Yes, people are chosen for Prep for Prep based on their scores on the WISC. The selected children are then put through their paces being brought up to speed academically so they will enter their prep schools on par with the more privileged children who usually attend such schools.
As far as I know, the Prep for Prep program is not particularly controversial. It's funded with private money (and often the independent schools themselves give scholarships and financial aid to the young people who gain admission). You would need to have a pretty big chip on your shoulder to begrudge giving brilliant kids from modest circumstances the opportunity to attempt the kind of rigorous education that will give them a shot at being admitted to elite colleges (I might quibble with the fact that Prep for Prep does not seem to be open to white children, many of whom also come from modest circumstances, but a fair number of the graduates were Asian children, so at least it does seem to be open to all minority children).
Yet when we refuse to create self-contained gifted classes or schools in inner cities, this is exactly what we do. I think of Jonathan Kozol's complaints about New York City's selective public schools (which some Prep for Prep kids wind up attending). "The better schools function, effectively, as siphons which draw off not only the most high-achieving and the best-connected students but their parents too," he wrote in Savage Inequalities. "This, in turn, leads to a rather cruel, if easily predictable, scenario: Once these students win admission....there is no incentive for their parents to be vocal on the issues that concern the students who have been excluded...The political effectiveness of those who have been left behind is thus depleted...public schools in a democracy should not be allowed to fill this role."
There are plenty of people who think that schools for the gifted wind up being politically unacceptable life rafts. They concentrate limited resources on the brightest children, rather than the lowest achieving, or some other metric.
This is, of course, exactly what Prep for Prep does. The program amounts to a private gifted education program. The idea is to get the brightest kids out of bad schools, and put them in good schools where they will be challenged.
I -- like most people -- have no problem with that using private money. In an ideal world, sure, all schools would be great. But we don't live in that world. So I don't believe in holding bright children hostage until they and their parents revolt. If Goldman Sachs and BlackRock are willing to cough up money to buy tables at an event to support that, all the better.
But I do find it interesting that such a program has to be private to be politically palatable. Wouldn't it be great if any highly gifted kid across the country whose needs could not be met locally could attend an elite boarding school without worrying about the cost? Wouldn't it be great if we identified all the brightest kids (perhaps partially using the WISC!) and then monitored their progress and made sure their needs were being met? Alas, this does not seem to be a public education priority. A private life raft is better than no life raft. But I'd like a few more public life rafts around the country as well.