Focus on Education

Prize Pupil

By Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Wanda Hill has helped hundreds of minority students get into expensive boarding schools. Now all she wants is to see one of her last proteges -- a boy who was abused and denied an education -- graduate

Reveling in a week of spring break, 18-year-old Amir Paul folds his tall, lanky body into a booth at a sunlit diner in Arlington and starts talking. He jabbers about the lacrosse camp he just attended in Florida, about his research project for Spanish class, about the week-long prep school graduation party in a couple of months that will go up and down the East Coast in houses belonging to friends' parents.

Wanda Hill, 77, sits across from him, picking at her Greek salad and enjoying herself. She smiles at the story of how, in the dead of a Massachusetts winter, Amir got his classmates at Groton School to clear an entire soccer field of snow so they could play a homecoming game against St. Mark's School. St. Mark's didn't show, but Amir got a lot of credit from his classmates.

"Did I tell you I was in a one-act play?" Amir asks as he wolfs down a cheeseburger, onion rings and fries.

"Oh, I'd love to see that," Hill says.

"I got a videotape," he says unselfconsciously. "It was my first time, and they said I did great."

Hill still finds it a little amazing to see Amir like this. When she met him, in the fall of 2001, he was a ninth-grader at Paul Junior High Public Charter School in Shepherd Park who'd been through six foster homes and was living in his second group home. He hadn't seen his parents in years, didn't know where they were and said he didn't care. He had huge gaps in his formal education.

"He didn't go to school until fifth grade," Hill explains as Amir gulps down a glass of ice water. "And yet he was making all these strides at Paul. He was involved in all these different things. I just thought he was really ready to blossom."

"And you're still waiting," Amir adds, flashing a smile.

Hill looks at him reproachfully, but they both know there's some truth to his words. Hill is still waiting for him to pull through his final semester at Groton, an elite boarding school whose graduates include Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she is worried. Amir's academic skills have soared at Groton, but he is in danger of failing one class, ecology, with only weeks left until graduation. If he doesn't bring up his grade by about five points, on commencement day he'll be handed a rolled-up piece of blank paper.

That prospect is awful. To see Amir come all this way and not get a diploma wouldn't be bad for just him. In a sense, June 5 -- "Prize Day" at Groton -- will be Hill's own graduation day, too. After 25 years, she's retiring as president, secretary, tutor and chauffeur for Project Match, an organization she founded in 1980 to help minority students in the Washington area attend boarding schools.

Working out of her home in McLean and spending thousands of dollars of her own money, Hill has helped place 500 mostly black and Hispanic students at, among other prep schools, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Foxcroft School in Virginia and St. Mark's in Massachusetts. Many were from families on public assistance who received financial aid.

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