MINNEAPOLIS -- Most of the 15 students had a word about their teacher: a man who ''pushed me hard,'' or ''held my hand,'' or ''sat on me'' or ''had faith in me.'' They spoke with affection and gratitude and with lightheartedness, too, because the teacher was in the back of the room listening. He was blushing like a beet on hearing the spontaneous praise for his academic midwifery.
The teacher is Bruce Schelske, co-director of the Upward Bound program at the University of Minnesota. He and Sharyn Schelske, his wife and co-director, have been working with Upward Bound students on this campus since 1969, when the program was four years old.
On the day I dropped in on the Schelskes and their charges, hearings on the federally funded program were being held in Washington by Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) for the Housesubcommittee on post-secondary education. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Upward Bound, one of the original antipoverty programs enacted in 1965 under the Economic Opportunity Act.
Along with its stablemates from that era -- Head Start, Legal Services, Community Action, VISTA, Job Corps -- Upward Bound has been a dependable workhorse, not a showhorse. Upward Bound is not as well known as the others, and it's often confused with Outward Bound, which teaches in-the-wild self-reliance. Upward Bound's friends in Congress are not given to issuing press releases every time a new grant is awarded to a college in the district.
The program brings high school students from poverty backgrounds to college campuses for an intensive six weeks of summer classes in writing, literature, math, science and electives. Counseling is provided, beginning with such basics as mastering the college-application process and applying for financial aid. Upward Bound, part of the Department of Education and funded for $92 million, now serves 34,000 high school students in 504 projects.
I confess to having been touched by my visit with the University of Minnesota students. These were warmhearted kids without guile who spoke, in intellectual innocence, of their good fortune in coming upon Upward Bound. They had survived society's so-whats: You're poor, you've taken drugs and your father skipped out five years ago? So what? You fell behind in school, teachers said you weren't smart and counselors were too busy with the bright crowd, so you gave up? So what? You want a second chance? So what?
Several of the students with whom I met were Upward Bound alumni now on campus as teaching assistants in the program. One had recently graduated from Brown and will be doing graduate work at Harvard. She had been in Upward Bound all the way through high school. Others were studying at schools throughout Minnesota, a state rich in quality liberal-arts colleges. The Schelskes report that since 1980, 215 of their 219 Upward Bound seniors have graduated from high school, with 88 percent going on to college. Nationally, Upward Bound students have been graduating from college at four times the rate of students from similar backgrounds who weren't in the program.
One reason, I imagine, for my being moved by the interviews here is that I've read too many reports from big-desk experts on why, how, when and where kids aren't making it in school. It's as if the professional ponderers are pursuing mystery solutions that, once fathomed, will turn around the schools. What's unmysteriously true is that when the educational methods of Upward Bound are applied -- caring, competent and innovative teachers working with minimal administrative interference -- students will respond.
One of the frustrations of the Schelskes is deciding which students can be enrolled. ''For every person we take, we're forced to say no to five,'' Bruce Schelske said. ''We take 30 new students out of a school where we could serve 500. The worst part of the year is choosing the students.''
The Schelskes say yes to a few and no to many. They keep a balance, taking some students with reading problems, others with harsh home lives and some with such obvious talents that passing them over would be nearly criminal. Still, they wonder about the hordes of eligible kids who've been missed. Some others -- in Congress, in the administration of ''the education president'' -- should be wondering, too.
Instead of asking why students are failing, the question should be: Who's failing students?