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Yvonne Abraham

Eyes toward their future

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2011

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Bumping along in the back of a school bus Thursday morning, some fourth-grade boys were locked in serious discussion.

“Maybe some dinosaurs survived, and they’ve been living underwater this whole time,’’ one of them posited.

This led to a lengthy debate over which dinosaurs did best in water, and which one was the best, period. This last was quickly resolved, as always, in favor of T-Rex.

Sitting with these bright-eyed, fully absorbed kids, I found myself wishing I could freeze them right there, in that gloriously curious, un-self-conscious state. Because soon, dinosaurs won’t be cool, cliques will form, and other influences will lead some of them down paths that will make them the school system’s biggest challenges.

All 10 boys from Roslindale’s George Conley Elementary were African-American. As a group, African-American boys trail everybody else in the Boston public schools academically: Last year, 57 percent of African-American boys scored at the needs improvement or warning level on the MCAS English test, and 62 percent landed in those categories in math. It’s the same in urban schools all over the country, which is why these kids were on that bus for Harvard.

They’re part of a smart Boston schools initiative called Impact 300, which targets 300 African-American boys in kindergarten and fourth grade and tries to give them big dreams and mentors to help realize them. Imbue kids with aspirations, and they believe education is worth something. More important, they believe their lives are worth something, and they’re less likely to throw either away.

Step one: Showing these boys what an actual college looks like.

“We should be taking a stretch Mercedes,’’ said Skylar Campbell, who had worn his blue blazer for the occasion. “It’s Harvard!’’

The boys had heard Harvard was really old.

“I bet they have a lot of antiques,’’ said Giovanni Barros-Campos.

The bus stopped to pick up more boys from a nearby school.

“Dang, it’s only boys,’’ said Andrez Gonzalez.

Joe Foley, the Conley’s warm, funny principal, gave him a sideways look.

“Dang?’’ he said. “Not a swear word, but it doesn’t sound good on a bus going to Harvard.’’

As the bus reached the campus, the kids could barely get their heads around the size of the place. In Sanders Theatre, they were impressed by the stained glass windows, and energized by speakers who told them they could be whatever they wanted, including college students.

Nothing impressed them as much as the freshman dining hall. There, they loaded up trays with fries, hot dogs, burgers, and multiple brownies, and inhaled almost all of it.

College was better than any of them had imagined.

“If you go to college, you can eat like this all the time,’’ Foley told them. “Where I went to college, they had an all-you-can-eat sundae bar.’’

The boys’ eyes widened. For a moment, it seemed like one or two of them might lose consciousness at this prospect.

Foley brought them round with a toast.

“Remember, the world is at your feet, my friends,’’ he said, as they held their sodas aloft. “I love you all.’’

In the Yard at the end of their tour, the kids rubbed John Harvard’s shoe for good luck.

The statue had given Barros-Campos a sign.

“I touched his shoe, and it made my hand go red!’’ he said on the bus back to Roslindale.

How different our kids’ lives would be if they could all feel that magic touch — and make it last.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.