Chance for betterment

Austin Taylor, 14, enjoys talk during the evening meal.
Austin Taylor, 14, enjoys talk during the evening meal. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)

Threatened program provides school alternative.

Posted: October 01, 2012

For nearly 40 years, the Radnor branch of the national nonprofit A Better Chance has been opening the way for talented minority students to move to the Philadelphia suburbs and attend one of the top high schools in Pennsylvania.

Without it, says youth counselor Mubarak Lawrence, his life would have been much different.

"It took me out of my environment and certain circumstances," said Lawrence, 24, of Philadelphia, who grew up amid gang violence in Newark, N.J. "Radnor gave me a chance when other schools didn't."

But the program that set Lawrence and hundreds of other Radnor High School graduates on a path to college may not make it much past its 40th anniversary celebration this year.

Severe money woes could sink an initiative that started as a civil rights-era commitment to integration and expanded opportunities for minority students.

With private and foundation donations plunging in the sputtering economy, the Radnor group is struggling with the upkeep of the Wayne property where it houses the students, and this fall does not have enough money to meet its projected $118,000 budget. Only six students, down from the usual 10, are participating this year because there is not enough funding for more.

"We may not be able to sustain the program," said Melissa Rose Schorr, the copresident.

It would be a "huge loss," said Mark Schellenger, principal at Radnor High. "The students bring a [valuable] perspective that is outside the Main Line bubble, and the program gives them an opportunity that they wouldn't have had otherwise."

The Radnor program is one of 22 affiliates of A Better Chance (ABC), a 49-year-old organization that places talented low-income teenagers, mostly from urban areas with low-performing schools, in 300 high-achieving schools around the nation.

ABC alumni include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the singer Tracy Chapman. Radnor alum Stephen Rogers is a professor at Northwestern University. Lawrence is a cofounder of Rising Sons, a Philadelphia youth-empowerment charity.

ABC students can commute daily to nearby independent schools, live on campus at boarding schools, or attend suburban public schools while living in the community.

The groups, organized as independent nonprofits, provide room, board and academic support.

In this area, ABC affiliates are also based in Lower Merion and Swarthmore. ABC Lower Merion's seven students attend Lower Merion High School. The Swarthmore group - officially ABC Strath Haven - has 11 students at Strath Haven High School in Nether Providence Township.

In the last five years, two ABC public school affiliates, both in Massachusetts, have closed because of money troubles.

All the branches are "labor-intensive" efforts for small volunteer boards that must raise money in addition to managing the programs, said Sandra E. Timmons, the national president. "It's not an easy thing."

Students who come to Radnor live on a 105-year-old property, owned by the branch, that includes a main house and carriage house in Wayne. But the group recently had to sink nearly $65,000 into a new roof and driveway.

Lower Merion's students live in a chapter-owned house in Ardmore. The Strath Haven group rents two houses from local churches for its students.

Radnor's main residence is a five-bedroom Victorian house with a wraparound porch on West Wayne Avenue next to the Radnor Memorial Library. The carriage house has four bedrooms and a second-floor apartment.

Each local group's budget tops $100,000.

Program officials hire staff that includes resident advisers for the houses. Tutors work with students during nightly mandated study halls. A cook makes the meals and students dine together on school nights. Local residents volunteer to become surrogate families for the students, and include them in activities at least once a month.

Beverly Keith, president of Lower Merion board, says the group's finances are stable, the result of an extensive letter-writing campaign, a new grant-writing initiative, and partnerships with local businesses.

Strath Haven is in the midst of a modest financial turnaround after operating at a deficit for four years. The group had struggled because of decreasing donations and the retirement of a longtime grant-writer. But a newly-created development committee comprised of people with fund-raising expertise has helped turn the tide, said Chris Darrell, group treasurer.

In Radnor, there are plans to expand fund-raising efforts to combat the money troubles.

This month, there were few outward signs that the program's future was in doubt.

Students moved into the house with the help of their parents. Board members, tutors, and the resident director greeted families.

Vivnie James of Long Island helped her daughter, Eryka Joseph, move in.

The 15-year-old sophomore hopes to complete her secondary education at Radnor. She considers it her ticket out of a life that began on Long Island and would likely end there.

When Joseph was a little girl, James would sing a lullaby to her at bedtime:

"Hush little baby, don't you cry, Momma's going to get you to Harvard someday."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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