College Is At Stake, But Student Founders

Posted: November 22, 1989

Three months ago, Marvin Wilson was an honored guest of the President of the United States.

He is a member of the Belmont Elementary School graduating class of 1987, the one whose 112 members benefactors George and Diane Weiss promised to send to college if they finished high school.

During a ceremony in the Old Executive Office Building, the lanky 15-year- old Marvin presented President Bush with a "Say Yes to Education" T- shirt.

"Thanks for having faith in us," Marvin told Bush, unprompted.

Three months later, Marvin Wilson had all but dropped out of school.

In attempting to guarantee the children of Belmont an education, the Weisses have been getting one themselves. The determined Hartford, Conn., couple have learned that making college affordable overcomes just one obstacle confronting children growing up poor and black in urban America.

Of the 1987 sixth-grade Belmont class, one student has been slain and one is in jail. Most of the rest are now in high school. About half of them make up the first ninth-grade class ever enrolled at the School of Human Services, an annex of John Bartram High School.

Other Belmont students are scattered at schools in Philadelphia, including a few prestigious magnet schools. Still others have moved out of the city, some are in residential placements or disciplinary schools, one attends a private girls' school on the Main Line, and 23, like Marvin, are enrolled at University City High.

The Weisses fought hard to put most of their students together at Bartram, an intimate place of fewer than 300 students where most of the students are doing well.

But the program has standards that many of the Belmont kids can't meet. The ones at University City are either special-education students with very low skill levels or chronic truants who have not yet gotten into serious trouble. Or, like Marvin, they are both.

Randall Sims, a coordinator of the Weisses' program, calls Marvin one of his hardheads. "Until he has some powerful experience in his life, we can't do anything. He has no interest in the learning process," Sims explained.

Marvin virtually ignored the Weisses and their Say Yes to Education program until last summer, when Sims paid him a visit at home. He thought there was some hope for Marvin.

"He had not reached the point where he wanted to commit to getting involved in criminal activity," said Sims, himself the product of both Philadelphia housing projects and the University of Pennsylvania. "He was bored with what he was doing, unhappy where life was going. He wanted to change."

As a result of Sims' pep talk, Marvin attended the summer classes and other activities organized by Say Yes - including the White House trip, where George Weiss selected him to give the President a T-shirt in hopes of boosting his self-image and motivation.

But since then, even though he was thrilled to meet Bush, Marvin had shown little faith in himself. Maybe he wanted a change, but school - at least not University City - wasn't it. When he went, he explained, it was simply to hang out with friends; he rarely attended classes.

So he reverted to his old habits of skipping school to hang out in video arcades, roam the streets or stay at home.

But the Weisses do not give up easily. Diane Weiss, on one of her many trips from Hartford to Philadelphia, banged on the door of Marvin's home one morning earlier this month after not finding him at school. Marvin seemed shocked that she had come looking for him.

"He's getting two divergent messages," said Diane Weiss. "There's the one of immediate gratification on the streets and with his friends. Then there's ours, which is more long term. They're so conflicting, so difficult, no wonder he's so horribly confused."

Sims agreed: "We're asking a 15-year-old kid to make a hard decision at this stage of his life. If he accepts what we have to offer, he's got to make a conscious decision to disassociate himself from some of his peers. He can't come to tutoring, spend extra time in school, be involved in extra activities and have enough time to spend with friends. We're asking them to make a big life decision. That's hard for anyone."

Marvin says his friends would laugh at him if he told them he had met the President.

"If I told my friends something like that, they wouldn't believe me," he said. Besides, such an event doesn't bring with it much status where he comes

from; it's more likely to work against him. "I don't want to tell people what I do good, just what I do normal," Marvin said.

Diane Weiss and Sims took Marvin to lunch and tried to talk sense to him.

Sims was relentless. What did he see for himself 10 years from now? Didn't he want to get a job?

"When you're 25 and 30 years old, you'll be mad as hell at yourself that you didn't have the discipline to go to school," Sims scolded. "You'll look at yourself in the mirror and see a kid who by random luck was given a chance and didn't take advantage of it."

Marvin frowned. "It's not like I don't want to go. I want to go, but I can't right now," Marvin said, explaining nothing.

Diane Weiss tried a gentler approach.

"We're asking you to tell us why the system doesn't work for you," she said. "What would your ideal school be like?"

"A regular class, a regular school. But I'd be treated like a normal, smart person," Marvin answered.

"How are you treated now?"

"Like a bad person. They think I'm dumb."

*

Marvin's mother, a stately woman who had her first child at 16, said that she wants Marvin to get an education, but has no control over whether he goes to school after she leaves for her job operating a lottery machine in a West Philadelphia store.

While she herself graduated from William Penn High School and her 23-year- old daughter did as well, she hasn't had as much luck with her three boys. Marvin is her youngest and, she said smiling, "my best. He doesn't give me any trouble."

When Marvin was in the fifth grade at the Charles Drew Elementary School, teachers recommended that he be classified as learning disabled and sent to Belmont, where there were more special-education classes. Geraldine Wilson agreed.

"I thought it was best to catch it early," she said. "He was slow in reading, his math wasn't up to par. . . . He's fairly smart as far as I'm concerned. The problem was he wasn't going to school."

But instead of being helped by the special classes, Marvin fell further behind. Diane Weiss, who was trained as a school psychologist, is convinced that he has no learning disability, but that the often rote, simplistic special-education classes simply bore him.

At Sulzberger Middle School, Marvin rarely showed up. Ditto University City.

"When I left for work, he would come back in the house and spend the day doing nothing," Geraldine Wilson said. "He says the school is too big and he thought he wasn't as good as the other children. He's afraid of children having material things he doesn't have. He's not dumb, but he has to prove that to other people."

After taking him to lunch on the day they found him at home, Weiss and Sims brought Marvin to visit the Bartram program so he could see several teachers he knew from the summer. They were disappointed to learn he had not been attending school.

"Why not, Marvin?" asked math teacher Ed Knight, who has eight Say Yes students in his class getting A's in algebra.

"Why? That's what I want to find out. That's what I'm asking myself, why?" Marvin answered.

But for him, seeing the Bartram program was a revelation, a world away from University City.

"University City's too big. I like Bartram better. It's smaller, I know more people there. It's funner. It's nothing like this school."

On Nov. 6, Marvin Wilson faced the doorway to University City High School, carrying books under his arm and wearing his red mock-leather jacket and black jeans.

But that was as far as he got. At the top of the steps, a non-teaching assistant told him that he could not enter the building.

He didn't know what to do. He had just taken what for him was a monumental step - an act of courage, even. He had journeyed to school. But now he was stuck, the modern brick edifice he knows as his school in front of him, 36th Street and its passing trolleys behind.

On the Friday before this chilly Monday morning, Marvin had gone through the laborious process of being reinstated to University City's official rolls, with Diane Weiss, Sims and his mother at his shoulder. On Saturday, George Weiss, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus, had taken Marvin to the Penn- Princeton homecoming game as a special guest. And on Monday, Marvin kept his promise and went to school.

But he was late. And he forgot his ID card. So he couldn't get in.

University City High School, in the shadow of Penn and Drexel University, was opened in 1972 with the high hopes of attracting the children of professors and becoming a model integrated urban school. It hasn't worked out that way.

The building now has close to 2,000 students, chiefly low income, primarily black and Asian. On any given day, one of three students is absent.

On the day Marvin showed up without his ID card, he set in motion a system that tries to be accommodating but ultimately relies on security and order, not on the nurturing of recalcitrant students.

School rules require that students without ID cards not be admitted unless they pay $5, although that can be waived. Late students must enter through a ''late room," and their IDs are confiscated until they serve a detention. Many students who dislike detention don't get their IDs back; some stop coming.

Although Marvin ultimately was admitted to school that day, he was being handled by teachers and administrators who tend to assume he has no intention to come back to school and stay.

"They drag these kids in, not just the Weisses," said one teacher. "The kids go on office roll, then they're dragged back in here and reinstated, then they don't show again. We can't keep our records straight."

One administrator said he realized there should be some medium between barring kids at the door and welcoming them like the prodigal son every time they decide to make an appearance. "We wish we could do it," he said. "But we have 100 kids who are late every day. And if we give an inch, they want a mile."

The school district is trying to restructure its neighborhood high schools so there will be more schools-within-schools like Bartram Human Services and fewer organized to be large, forbidding places like University City.

But things aren't happening fast enough to affect students like Marvin.

"That whole system is set up to discourage children from coming to school," said Sims. "There's some reality to it, they need some way to protect kids (in the building) from outsiders. But (the procedure) discourages kids like Marvin. . . . It makes it hard for them to find a way back. With all the other problems and dilemmas they face, trying to adjust to the classroom, be a student after being out for close to a year, it's just another obstacle that makes it so hard."

On the other hand, Marvin and students like him present University City High School - and the Say Yes program - with a dilemma. "We're forced all the time to make value judgments," said Sims. "Which kids should get the most help: The kids who are making progress or the kids like Marvin who need so much more resources? They're forcing us to face a difficult question."

As of the end of last week, Sims said that Marvin had shown up in school every day since he started again, but that he often cut classes. He's come to tutoring twice, but missed the two sessions last week. "He's keeping to the letter of his agreement, but not the spirit," Sims said.

Still, neither he nor the Weisses have given up.

"There's not a kid in this program who can't go through some post- secondary training," Sims said. "The issue is what's required to do it."

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