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‘ Whatever ItTakes’A Community BuilderEthnic roots of Blacks and Hispanics hail from different parts of the world, but when it comes to higher education, the disadvantages facing both groups often transcend skin color. Yet a growing number of educators believe that intense outreach in urban communities can help students of color who are culturally and socioeconomically disadvantaged make the leap to the nation’s most prestigious universities. To do so, minorities must get access to the same amenities that are often a given in wealthier, suburban schools, advocates say.
These so-called “amenities” include field trips, small classes and laptop computers that shuttle from home to school and back.
Consider A Better Chance, a New York-based nonprofit group, which was established 40 years ago to help increase minorities’ college opportunities. It is one of the few groups nationally that works directly with minorities and some of the highest-achieving middle and high schools around.
The group helps qualified minorities enroll at one of its member schools, which typically have tougher standards than urban schools. Of those students, one-third are from families at or below the poverty line. Two-thirds are from single-parent homes. More than one-third of member schools are boarding schools, and at any given time, more than 1,400 minorities are matched to member schools by A Better Chance, which also helps secure tuition waivers for students. A Better Chance officials say that most of their students go straight to college.
In fact, more than 1,900 have earned bachelor’s degrees in the past five years, and more than 170 have earned graduate degrees. “The gap can definitely be bridged,” says Santa Brown, director of the Northern California chapter of A Better Chance.
Of course, many minorities still thrive at urban schools. But educators agree that outreach must be especially concentrated to draw students whose families aren’t college-educated. Here’s a look at two college freshmen from different parts of the country enrolled at elite schools this semester.
Edward Smith-Lewis Jr. says he has looked “all my life” for a place like Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Never in his 19 years has he surrounded himself with successful, high-achieving Black men. It’s an opportunity Smith-Lewis relishes as he begins his freshman year.
But perhaps it’s a natural step from the rigorous, primarily White College Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif. The average SAT score among last spring’s graduates was 1400 — out of a possible 1600.
Among other things, Smith-Lewis matured academically and socially there, despite shuffling homes and lacking parental support. In fact, school has been home for as long as he can remember. His father drifted in and out of jail, and his mother blew welfare checks on crack. Even in elementary school, he attended classes for gifted students and after-school programs. Straight A’s came easily.
By seventh grade, his mother left Oakland — and him. So he moved in with a series of family friends and then a pastor. Teachers helped him sign up for outreach programs such as A Better Chance, an agency that matches minorities with elite middle and high schools. Soon, he applied for admission at the college prep. His acceptance included a waiver of the $19,000-a-year tuition. And in turn, he pushed himself at a private school where many classmates carried cell phones and drove new cars. Indeed, as one of only 15 Blacks out of 320 students, Smith-Lewis also stood apart because he relied on the bus.
At first, he was miserable. He struggled to avoid earning C’s. Socially, he was a loner. More than 30 percent of his classmates were minorities, but they had gone to private schools previously. Where did he fit in? And could he?
He considered transferring back to a public high school, where he likely could’ve been valedictorian. But he dropped the idea after accompanying classmates to a conference where the congenial atmosphere encouraged everyone to get to know each other better. And he realized the academic rigors at the private school would better prepare him for college.
“The students were there with a purpose,” Smith-Lewis recalls. “They worked to the fullest extent. There was no goofing off, and I realized that everyone was there to help each other. And the teachers were there all the time. I had no excuses not to ask for help, even if it meant calling them at home.”
Smith-Lewis got involved with extracurricular activities, even rising to co-president of the student body while juggling a part-time cashier’s job at a Sears department store.
On full scholarship at Morehouse, he hopes to earn a teaching certificate — so he can return to Oakland and help other disadvantaged kids.
“There’s no doubt he’s a community builder,” says Andy Dean, the Oakland school’s dean of students. 

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