Volume 74, Number 17 | August 25 - 31 , 2004

Back to School, Part I

A special Villager supplement.

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

From left to right, Nikole Smith, director of preparatory component of Prep for Prep; Avril Coley, 11; Thomas Weng, 11; Mark Miranda, 10; Christol Patterson, 11; Peter Bordonaro, Prep for Prep deputy director; Crystal Harper, 11; and Travis Hutchinson, 11.

Preparatory program helps gifted students aim high

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

At 9 a.m. on a sunny summer weekday in the West Village many area preteens head to the pool or go bike riding bikes with friends. But inside the Village Community School on W. 10th St. between Greenwich and Washington Sts., a group of 210 11- and 12-year-olds are discussing and debating hate crimes and gun control.

Here, through Prep for Prep, a rigorous 14-month educational program designed to develop leadership skills and critical thinking, teachers, counselors and administrators help prepare gifted minority students for placement in private high schools. For two summers and part time during one school year — in addition to their regular public schooling — students attend free courses in English, history, current affairs, math and research. Usually based on the Upper West Side, Prep for Prep moved to the West Village this summer while the program’s usual location undergoes renovation.

“It’s a very rigorous program,” said Peter Bordonaro, Prep for Prep’s deputy executive director and director of academic programs. “We’re putting kids in a very stressful environment and prepping them for a very stressful environment, but this program contributes to their personal confidence in such a great way.”

Created by educator Gary Simons in 1978, Prep for Prep has graduated several thousand students, many of whom go on to attend Ivy League colleges and excel in professions such as medicine and law. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, 19, Prep for Prep’s assistant head of advisors, graduated from the program in 1996, attended Manhattan’s prestigious Collegiate School and applied early to Princeton University. This summer he oversaw the program’s 24 advisors, who provide program participants with academic, emotional, social and psychological guidance.

“One of the more complicated things is dealing with the baggage kids may have brought with them — from their neighborhoods, their homes,” Padilla Peralta said. “It’s rewarding to see them come out strong and surpass the challenges of the program in the midst of personal struggle.”

Now a junior, Padilla Peralta plans to pursue a Ph.D. in humanities or a JD/MPA, and said that Prep for Prep helped him to better rely on himself and his abilities and to flourish as a leader in academic settings. “To sum it all up, the program’s emphasis on academic rigor helped me to mature as a student and also as a person,” he said. “Before, I was aware of my academic abilities, but I wasn’t cognizant of how to deploy them.”

Like other students, Padilla Peralta underwent a lengthy application process to qualify for the program, including a nomination from his public school, an initial skills test, IQ tests, multiple interviews, teacher recommendations and writing samples. Each year 3,000-3,500 students apply, but Prep for Prep accepts only 210.

“We’re looking for special kids who have the potential to become leaders. It’s just amazing to teach them, because they’re so motivated,” said Bordonaro.

Bordonaro, who lives in the West Village Houses, of which his wife, Katy, is tenants association president, was instrumental in getting the program to come down to V.C.S. in Greenwich Village for this summer.

From 8:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summers, and Wednesdays after school and Saturdays during the school year, the students tackle topics ranging from algebra — the most advanced math available — to French and Latin and read texts such as Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” and an article by former Chief Justice Warren Berger. Students leave with three-to-four hours of homework a night from their teachers — mostly faculty from New York area independent schools.
“Learning here is exciting,” Bordonaro said. “We’re really a couple of years ahead of what they do in public school. Going back to their regular schools seems boring for them, because we challenge them.”

After students’ first summer in the program, administrators introduce them and their parents to the private or independent schools through visits and interviews. Once students graduate Prep for Prep and enter the independent or private school that accepts them, more often than not with full financial aid, the program continues to follow students’ progress and assigns each a counselor who makes monthly visits.

“The program started out preparing kids for prep schools,” Bordonaro said, “but it’s evolved over the years into a community.”

Optional programs participants can take advantage of, including a leadership development summer institute and a summer job bank, continue throughout high school. Prep for Prep maintains a partnership with Experiment in International Living, an organization through which students travel abroad and live with host families — most Prep for Prep students who participate in the exchange program receive scholarships. Prep for Prep also advises students during the college application process.

Advisors helped Padilla Peralta decide on Princeton, where he was first in his class freshman year. He said he attributes much of his success to lessons learned during his 14 months at Prep for Prep and the confidence he gained in the community of scholars.

“I didn’t have that solidarity in my public school,” Padilla Peralta said. “Here, I found a greater sense of what people can do working together. They always taught us to aim high and to aspire for more.”

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