By the time Famebridge Gray had walked onto the stage to receive her award, a man in the audience at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington could no longer contain himself. "That's my daughter!" Robert Gray proudly shouted to a crowd assembled to pay homage to the D.C. public school system's best and brightest students. Famebridge, of Woodson High, and several other pupils had just completed an intensive five-weeks of study called Potential National Merit Scholars, a title that also describes its stated purpose: to help the school system produce more semifinalists in the national merit scholarship program. For Mr. Gray, who arrived with a unique perspective, it was a rejuvenating experience.
"In this city, with all the negative things going on, we need this type of event. I'm trying to keep my children moving in a positive direction," said Mr. Gray, whose shift as a detective with the D.C. police department's Youth Division had ended just a few hours earlier. It's a job that puts him in contact with youths who live in a world filled with parental abuse and neglect, drugs and delinquency.
"If we don't encourage our children, we're going to go down the tubes," Mr. Gray said. "This is positive and upbeat. I think it's beautiful."
Too often in the city's public schools, the most gifted students are not sufficiently challenged, or are distracted by less serious youths who chide them for "wasting" time on school work. For those reasons and others, the school system seems to have gone to unusual -- some might say extreme -- lengths to provide a special academic atmosphere. Because most, if not all of these youths would have held jobs during the five-week program, they were actually paid $3.80 per hour through the city's summer youth employment program.
Specially trained teachers directed the students, and mentors like Nigerian-born Abey O. Odunmbaku, an engineer, architect and president of ABOD Corp. in Gaithersburg, helped with instruction. Five days a week, and for 5 1/2 hours beginning a 8:30 a.m., the students were led through a review of algebra, geometry, special topics and problem-solving, as well as through honors-level English, critical thinking skills and vocabulary study. Each student was also expected to wade through much of a reading list that included everyone from modern black authors such as Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison to the likes of Joseph Conrad and Jane Austen.
"My eyes bulged when they kept handing us book after book. It's like going to school year 'round," said Deidre Lee, a Banneker High School student who maintains an "A" average. "Now, I can even correct my mother." Her parents, George and Virginia, said it was their daughter's most challenging educational experience to date.
For Sala Patterson of Wilson high School, the work helped her relax and draw on the skills she always had. "I'm a lot more confident now," she said. Her selection index score on trial versions of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test improved from 150 to 181. That's not a national merit semifinalist performance, but it shows that she is beginning to perform at a level more commensurate with her 3.8 grade average.
"You usually have to pay a lot of money for a program like this, and it was free for us," said Anthony of Dunbar High School, who scored a 78 out of a possible 80 on the math section of a practice version of the PSAT. "My friends look at this differently now. They know I got paid this summer to get smarter."
It is also gratifying to note that these are teenagers with high aspirations. Deidre Gantt, who will attend Dunbar in the fall, Michael Po and Anthony Jackson want to become engineers, Deidre Lee wants to become a lawyer -- and high test scores, they know, will help.
"We don't have to push these kids, and their scores will be enhanced," said Eugene Williams, director of both test score improvement and the Potential Merit Scholars Program for the city's schools. "We'll continue to work with them in the fall, twice a week, including Saturdays, before they take the PSAT in October."
Even the instructors didn't seem to mind the normally draining task of following up a regular school year's tasks with the equivalent of five more weeks of classes. Said teacher Cynthia Jones, "we gain strength from people who want to learn."
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.