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From Charter To Prep, The Next Step - Private High Schools Display Big Interest In Newark Students
By JOHN MOONEY
December 7, 2004
Dressed in his school's green sweater-vest and white shirt, Johnny Carmona sat ramrod straight, a little nervous but not too shy to have a few questions of his own.
Before him was an admissions officer from the Taft School in Connecticut, a boarding school of stately brick dormitories and rolling fields, who traveled to Newark's Robert Treat Academy Charter School yesterday to lure bright - not to mention minority - students like Johnny.
"What colleges do your students go to?" Carmona asked Taft's Felecia Williams.
"What do you expect of your students?" he prodded.
Jotting notes as he spoke, Williams was duly impressed. "He's definitely boarding school material," Williams later told Johnny's mother.
Those are words not spoken often in Newark's North Ward, a hardscrabble and mostly Hispanic neighborhood, but it's a situation that the Robert Treat Academy is trying hard to change, 50 kids at a time.
The charter school, three weeks into its fall semester, hosted more than two dozen of New Jersey's and the country's most prestigious prep schools. The recruiters spent the day interviewing its eighth-graders for high school admission next fall.
The "Interview Day" was extraordinary for an inner-city public school, and the signs lining the tables in the school's gymnasium - Phillips Academy Andover, Miss Porter's, Pingry, to name a few - showed there clearly was no shortage of interest.
It also was testament to the success of Robert Treat, not just by Newark and charter school standards, but for all public schools. Last year, 98 percent of its fourth-graders passed the state's tests; nearly half reached advanced standing in math.
"These schools want the best and have incredible standards," said Vicky Martinez, Robert Treat's high school placement officer. "And I think we have a great product to offer them."
Once bastions of white privilege, private schools have long sought minority students and have built partnerships with a number of scholarship foundations that reach into both public and private inner-city schools.
The Wight Foundation, A Better Chance and Prep to Prep are among the most prominent that help low-income minority students attend schools where tuition typically starts at $20,000, topping $30,000 at boarding schools.
Private schools are more aggressively recruiting. Some have even started marketing efforts to sell themselves in urban communities and all are actively seeking minority candidates.
Unless students reach out themselves, admissions officials said, public schools are a tough source, either unfamiliar with or unwilling to allow in private school recruiters. But that hasn't stopped them from trying.
"We are making a conscious effort to come to these schools," said Susan Mantilla, associate admissions dean at Phillips Andover, where about a fifth of the students are black or Hispanic. "We know there are bright kids in all types of schools."
Robert Treat, among the state's first charter schools, has tapped into that desire. More than a year before any of its first eighth-grade class would even graduate, it invited schools to tour the building and its classes. The school requires all seventh-graders visit a boarding school.
And in preparation for yesterday's interviews, teachers coached students about how to present themselves. It even held a last-minute workshop with parents on Monday.
"We just went over the basics with the kids: no slang, just be yourself and use plenty of anecdotes," Martinez said. "Try to have a conversation, tell them what you are interested in."
All 46 eighth-graders participated in at least one interview yesterday, some as many as six.
Jonathan Valentin, 13, spoke with Montclair-Kimberley Academy, Pingry and Newark Academy. After MKA's session, he claimed no jitters to speak of.
"I told them I was a pretty good leader, curious, intelligent," Jonathan said. "And I asked them about their math advanced-placement classes. That's what I'm interested in."
For all the competition between them, the admission officers are a pretty cozy group, and those from the Northeastern schools often travel together and find themselves at the same events and schools. Those seeking minority applicants find the circle can be even smaller.
Hispanic students remain among the toughest catches, and that made Robert Treat all the more attractive, with three-quarters of its enrollment Hispanic, mostly from Puerto Rico.
"I definitely wanted to come to this one," said Williams, the Taft School officer.
One school official said Hispanic families seem the "last to let go," and a few of the mothers who met with schools yesterday blanched at the prospect of their children off at a boarding school.
Rocio Rivera followed her daughter, Jessica, to meet with Lawrenceville's officer. She also visited the school last year.
"It was huge, like a college," she said.
But she said if her daughter wants to go to a boarding school, she'd be willing under one condition.
"Nothing out of state," she said. "I will never allow it, I want her close."
1. Wilfredo Burgos, an eighth-grader at the Robert Treat Academy Charter School, is interviewed yesterday by Paul Thornton, a recruiter for St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark. 2. During an interview for the Newark Academy yesterday, recruiter Betsy Barbato uses a brochure to highlight programs for Daisy Padilla, an eighth-grader at the Robert Treat school.