Students seek a better world by way of dance Chester pupils are taking an unusual path to college.

Posted: August 13, 2008

Energized by ice cream and watermelon, the young men and women from Chester took to the dance floor in the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore College.

Two days before, they had learned the rudiments of the waltz. Today they were trying the tango, a dance that's both sad and sexy.

"I love it," said Angel Pabon after a couple of nimble turns. "It's kind of like math with your feet."

It had been a busy day for these lucky youths enrolled in TAP, The Achievement Project of Chester. Hours earlier, they had splashed around in the pool and learned some basic strokes at the Swarthmore Swim Club. Afterward, they had taken the Myers-Briggs personality assessment test and practiced filling out a college application.

The essential aim of TAP is simple: to enable these kids, who attend one of the worst-performing high schools in the state, to get into college and thrive.

"Everyone has tremendous potential," says Nicola Tollett Jefferson, the founder and executive director of TAP. "We try to expose these young people to as many positive experiences as possible, anything that will help them succeed in college."

Including ballroom dancing, which proved to be a surprise hit. The dozen or so dancers, all juniors-to-be at Chester High School, were laughing, joyous, engaged.

Twenty students are enrolled in TAP. They were invited to apply when they were in eighth grade. In 2010, this "cohort" will graduate from high school, and if Jefferson's will be done, all 20 will enroll at an institution of higher education.

It has already happened once. The first TAP class, which was assembled in 2002, the year Jefferson launched the project, was graduated in 2006, and all 20 - 100 percent - were admitted to colleges and universities such as Widener, Hampton, Delaware State, Cheyney, Morgan State and East Stroudsburg.

"We provide the opportunities, but they're the ones who have to put in the work," says Jefferson, 45, a former corporate lawyer and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College.

During the school year, the students meet three times a week after school for tutoring and targeted academic instruction, especially in math and science and subjects that will improve their performance on standardized tests. Once a month, they also attend a special workshop or take a field trip. In the summer, they participate in an intensive six-week summer enrichment program, three hours a day, four days a week.

This summer, the TAPsters programmed a robotic vacuum cleaner to wend its way through a maze at Drexel University. They were coached in creative writing by professors at Widener University. At Temple University, they sat in on a class in business etiquette. They journeyed to New York, where they were dazzled by the lights of Times Square.

"It was so beautiful," recalled Matt Love, 16. "It was like. . . immaculate - that's one of my new words I like to use."

The ballroom dance instruction is typical of Jefferson's desire to expose the TAP students to a wide range of experiences, to broaden their horizons and help them develop the social skills that will enable them to participate comfortably in mainstream society.

Instead of slouching and muttering an indifferent "Wassup?," they learn to stand erect, to greet with a firm handshake, to make eye contact. Jefferson has introduced them to foods other than the fare at McDonald's, such as sushi and hummus.

"I'm trying to get them past, 'Eeew! What's that? That's nasty.' " Jefferson says. "These kids have excellent coping skills - for the streets of Chester. Unfortunately, they're not always transferable."

When the students discovered they'd be learning ballroom dancing, some of them asked why. Jefferson explained,"By doing something different, it will help develop your coping skills when you're in other unfamiliar situations."

She offered an example: One summer when she was working as an associate in a law firm, a partner took her to lunch at a Japanese restaurant. There was no silverware. Jefferson, who had never used chopsticks before, kept her composure. She waited till her host began eating and carefully imitated him.

"The idea is not to be ashamed of you who are, but to have options. The way you act and carry yourself can make or break you."A Houston native, Jefferson grew up in Washington. Her parents both have law degrees. At Smith, Jefferson majored in French and anthropology and then pursued a law degree mainly because she viewed it as "very negotiable."

TAP grew out of an experience she had in law school. In her third year at Columbia University, she tutored a junior high school student from Harlem named Daphney Lockette.

"I was amazed by what she didn't know," says Jefferson. "She was obviously very bright, and both her parents were working and living at home. She defied all the stereotypes, and yet her ignorance was appalling. It was not her fault but a criminal failure of the system of education."

Jefferson tutored Lockette for a year and later helped her pass the Regents exam, required for graduation. Today, Lockette has written two published books of poetry and is finishing her dissertation for a Ph.D.

After earning her teacher certification, Jefferson applied for grants. She launched TAP with a total of $11,000. This year, the budget will grow to $125,000, and for the first time, Jefferson will draw a full-time salary. The program is supported by donations as well as grants from such philanthropies as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Connelly Foundation.

A self-described "social entrepreneur," Jefferson combines ladylike refinement and immense physical energy. She's an enthusiastic cyclist and competitive triathlete who rises at 5:30 a.m, bursting with ambition and new ideas.

When it's suggested that some of the satisfaction she feels stems from a belief that she's changing lives, she modestly demurs. Her students, however, would disagree.

"I have more confidence now," says Matt Love, who aspires to be a video-game designer and animator. "Not a lot of people from Chester High graduate. They fall out after 10th grade. I can give hope for little kids, be a role model. I can change the world by being one person."

"Before I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to college," says Charneesha Queen, 16, who aims to become a psychiatrist. "But now I have a direction and feel prepared. It's also helped me realize my leadership potential, how I can influence my peers."

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-696-3249 or acarey@phillynews.com.

For more information about the Achievement Project of Chester, visit www.tapofchester.org or call 484-995-0828.

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