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Why so many of Boston’s high school valedictorians struggle to succeed

High school valedictorians are the best in their class academically. But a new report finds that the top graduates of Boston’s public high schools are encountering great obstacles to attaining educational and economic milestones. John Yang talks to the Boston Globe's Malcolm Gay, one of the story's reporters, about how former stars are struggling and why success takes more than scholarship money.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Every year, high school valedictorians appear to represent the best and the brightest of America's young people.

    But as John Yang reports, for recent graduates in Boston, the reality can often be very different.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, over the past year, The Boston Globe tracked down 93 of the 113 valedictorians in the city's public high school classes of 2005 to 2007.

    While nearly 80 percent of them did become the first in their families to go to college, often on scholarships, their ambitions were not always fulfilled. Fully one-quarter of them didn't finish college within six years. And, today, 40 percent earn less than $50,000 a year.

    Malcolm Gay is one of The Boston Globe reporters who worked on this massive project, and he joins us from the studios of PBS station WGBH in Boston.

    Malcolm, thanks for joining us.

  • Malcolm Gay:

    It's a pleasure.

  • John Yang:

    You call this or the paper calls this an epidemic of untapped potential. What happened to the ambitions of these young men and women?

  • Malcolm Gay:

    Well, I think, oftentimes, they come out of school. They are, you know, positioned for success — or seemingly positioned for success. They oftentimes go to school with generous scholarships, depending on their GPA, and then quickly realize that the Boston Public Schools has not given them the tools to really succeed in an academic — in a rigorous academic environment.

    And so, oftentimes, that's the beginning of the obstacles that they encounter, and those obstacles increase over time.

  • John Yang:

    This was a multimedia project. You have taped interviews on the Web site with some of these valedictorians.

    We want to play one from Madelyn Disla.

    What do we need to know or what should we know, the viewers know, about Madelyn before they hear this tape?

  • Malcolm Gay:

    Well, Madelyn was like a lot of the valedictorians in the Boston Public Schools.

    She came over to the United States as an immigrant, in her case from the Dominican Republic, and ended up valedictorian of Charlestown High School, and went to Dartmouth University, one of the great schools in the country.

  • John Yang:

    So let's take a listen to her story, and then we will talk about it on the other side.

  • Madelyn Disla:

    I didn't benefit so much from being valedictorian, other than I really got a good scholarship and went to a really good school.

    I think my mother not being here in the country, seeing how much my family struggled, I think that motivated me. But then I struggled the same way, so…


  • Madelyn Disla:

    I was pregnant and homeless. I was in the shelter. It was really — it was a hard time.

    At a lot of points throughout college, I just felt like this is too much for me. And I felt like I fooled myself during high school thinking that I was so smart and I can handle it, because I was really quick to understand a lot of things in high school.

    But college came and was very different.

  • John Yang:

    We should say that she was homeless after she graduated from Dartmouth. She couldn't find a job.

    What did her story represent among the valedictorians you talked to?

  • Malcolm Gay:

    Well, I think Madelyn's story is one of the more tragic that we found, to tell you the truth.

    That said, she's one of four valedictorians that we spoke with that ended up homeless, several of them or a few of them with children in the homeless shelters.

    Madelyn, I think it's shocking that you — when you think that she graduated from a place like Dartmouth College, only the wind up homeless.

    That to me — and I think that our reporting bears out that these individuals come from family situations, social situations where they don't have a lot of the privileges that upper-middle-class families may have. And so when they themselves struggling with obstacles, they oftentimes have to take desperate measures.

    In her case, that means ending up in a homeless shelter.

  • John Yang:

    You compared these Boston graduates to graduates the same year from suburban high schools around the city. What did you find?

  • Malcolm Gay:

    We found a dramatic difference in opportunity and achievement.

    The suburban valedictorians were roughly three times more likely than Boston valedictorians to earn $100,000 or more per year. Something like a quarter of Boston valedictorians wanted to be doctors. Today, there's not a single doctor among that cohort.

    Meanwhile, with the suburbans, there are eight doctors.

  • John Yang:

    And you also compared — or I should say that, in Boston, there are two tiers of high schools. You have got exam schools, you have got a test into them, and then the other public high schools.

    And there was also a difference between those schools; is that right?

  • Malcolm Gay:

    That's correct.

    I think the exam schools are a real issue within the Boston Public Schools. About a quarter of all Boston public high school high schoolers go to exam schools. And while that may sound like a great thing — the exam schools test higher on standardized tests. They oftentimes go to four-year colleges compared to the rest of the district.

    What that also means is that the rest of the district is oftentimes burdened with having to educate court-adjudicated kids, kids that are economically disadvantaged, special-need kids. And so the burden on the rest of the system is quite high because of this exam school formulation that Boston has embraced for so long.

  • John Yang:

    Essentially, they skim off the cream of the students into these three exam schools.

  • Malcolm Gay:

    That's very well said.

  • John Yang:

    And the classes that you looked at were obviously graduating into the teeth of the recession. Is there any sense that subsequent classes are doing better, subsequent valedictorians?

  • Malcolm Gay:

    Well, that's right.

    I mean, I think that a lot of the — we started this project by looking at the "Faces of Excellence' feature that we do each year. And we started doing that in 2005. So, as it happened, these kids were really graduating into the teeth of the Great Recession.

    My sense is that the students that have come after that — and I just — and this is purely anecdotal — that the students that have come after that have done somewhat better. And that's partially because scholarship programs and mentoring programs have become much more sophisticated in how they deal with first-gen students.

    Many of these students are first-generation college. They're entering college as the first of their family. And what these scholarship and mentoring programs have found is that you can't just simply give them tuition. You have to actually offer mentoring programs and counseling programs and things like that to allow these kids to really succeed.

  • John Yang:

    Malcolm Gay of The Boston Globe on "The Valedictorians Project."

    It can be found on the Web site BostonGlobe.com.

    Malcolm Gay, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Malcolm Gay:

    Thank you.

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