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Out of a Homeless Shelter and Into an Eager College

Susan Notes: There's scandal in this piece: Scandal that in the richest country in the world this teenager would be homeless, scandal that prestigious high schools outsource letters of college recommendations (thus supplying another niche for Princeton Review, the test prep outfit. But the overwhelming message of this story is the triumph of a boy named J. R., , a boy who has been homeless since 4th grade.

ALEX WHITE is the college counselor at Urban Academy, a small public high school in Manhattan. By the time he writes a college recommendation, he's spent dozens of hours with the student. That's the advantage of a small school. Mr. White wrote recommendations for 37 seniors this year - about a third as many as his colleagues at large New York City high schools.

Instead of the usual load of four classes, Mr. White has three, plus counseling. This is doubly beneficial. He had J. R. Bennett in an architectural course, had him in gym for weight-lifting and directed J. R. in a school play, "Lysistrata." The Aristophanes comedy was tough to adapt, Mr. White wrote in J. R.'s recommendation, but J. R. kept the cast going. "J. R. helped make the hard work fun," Mr. White wrote. "This is a rare ability."

The school is on a single floor, and Mr. White sees practically every student daily. Watching J. R. these last three years, he saw an unusually sunny and thoughtful teenager, someone people would never guess has been homeless since fourth grade.

To most people, J. R. tells only the vague outline of his story. A few years ago, Mr. White wrote, J. R. began working with the Coalition for the Homeless, giving press interviews about how devastating the city's family shelter system could be. But even as J. R. spoke out, Mr. White wrote, he guarded his privacy. Mr. White wrote that J. R. had turned his homelessness into more of a political and social cause than a personal disaster. "J. R.'s way is to dodge and deflect and keep things away from the personal," Mr. White said. "A lot of energy goes into dodging."

Dodging, Mr. White saw, masked the embarrassment. Since J. R. was 9, he and his father have lived with teachers, cousins and a grandmother and in numerous shelters. "I learned to keep to myself from a young age," J. R. says. "You can't be yourself in someone else's house."

Over time, Mr. White figured out where J. R. did his schoolwork: park benches; the shelter stoop; a branch library; a girlfriend's apartment; Starbucks. "The secret to J. R.'s success," Mr. White wrote, "lies in his organization skills. With no stable place to call home, he has been forced to develop a strategy for doing his schoolwork and keeping track of his obligations. With his laptop and a stuffed backpack J. R. can set up shop wherever he needs to."

Mr. White wrote that J. R. would actually have an easier time adapting to college than most children. "While his fellow freshmen are learning to manage the responsibilities of living away from home, J. R. will be enjoying the novelty of sleeping in the same bed every night."

URBAN ACADEMY is a "second chance" school of mainly low-income minority children who transfer from other high schools. J. R. found Urban his sophomore year. "They were the only ones who answered the phone," he said. Urban is that rare city school with adequate teaching staffing for small classes, in part because there are no deans or assistant principals and everyone, including the principal, teaches - and answers the phone.

The quality of their recommendations is well known. "Their recommendations are as good as the best public and private schools where teachers really know students," says Martha Merrill, the admissions dean at Connecticut College in New London.

That's a luxury even elite New York public schools, like Stuyvesant, do not enjoy. Last winter, Stuyvesant counselors were so overloaded, the school began negotiations with Princeton Review, a private test prep company, to outsource recommendations. Princeton Review offered to provide consultants who would interview seniors for 20 minutes and have them fill out questionnaires, then write their recommendations.

John Katzman, Princeton Review's chief executive, wrote that "urban districts are under tremendous budget pressure," and outsourcing recommendations was a "cost effective" solution. "This is not a 20-minute quick meal," he wrote, although that was precisely how parents and the faculty saw it, and following an article in The New York Sun last month, the Stuyvesant deal collapsed.

But Robin Raskin, a Princeton Review spokesman, said there's a market for outsourced recommendations, and her company is doing them at Paul Robeson High in Brooklyn, at some Edison-run schools and at "some Colorado schools." She refused to be more specific.

When asked about the Princeton Review 20-minute solution, college officials don't know whether to laugh or cry. "What's the point?" Ms. Merrill asked. "It won't tell us a thing we don't know."

Each fall, Connecticut College sponsors overnight visits for poor and minority students. J. R. wanted to go, but didn't qualify - he had failed a math course in his junior year. So Mr. White faxed the college an updated transcript that showed J. R's improved math grades. And Becky Walzer, his math teacher, wrote a letter describing how J. R. had reversed his failure. "He knew he could do well if he set up a strict structure for himself," she wrote. "He planned to ask for help from a friend or teacher whenever he had questions. He planned to sit in the front of the room and never leave to go to the bathroom. He has stuck with all of his plans."

J. R. got to make that visit and fell in love with the college - and the college with J. R. "We're looking for people who will effect change and make a difference," Ms. Merrill says. "We think that's J. R."

Even after J. R. was accepted with a full scholarship, Mr. White was not done. He and J. R. discussed whether this was the right choice. The college is about 9 percent black and Hispanic, and J. R. is black. "He was unwavering," said the counselor. "Some kids are not comfortable in so white a place. J. R. does not have a problem being a minority. And that's not just about race or class. He's comfortable being unique."

For his part, J. R. says all kinds of people have helped him get this far. "I've seen how positive every other race has been, like Caucasians," he says. A few of his black friends have told him he'll be unhappy at such a white college, and at his shelter, he's always hearing prejudiced remarks. On the day a reporter visited, a woman in the shelter lobby was complaining loudly about living in "Jew York City."

"I spend as little time here as possible," said J. R., who often doesn't come "home" until bedtime. "I do everything I can to escape it."

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times


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