Yvonne Abraham

Don’t assume the worst

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / January 31, 2010

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Say you see a bunch of white 19-year-olds hanging out on a street corner in Lexington one summer afternoon. Chances are, you assume they’re home from college.

What if you come upon some black youths on the corner of Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue in Dorchester that same day. Do you assume they’re home from college, too?

Probably not, right? That’s sad, but not necessarily bigotry. The fact is, a lot of kids in that neighborhood, one of the city’s most dangerous, don’t go to college, and don’t expect to. Their neighbors would make the same snap judgment about them as an outsider driving through.

Which is why what is going on in a converted green Victorian a couple minutes down Bowdoin is so intriguing.

“Whatever you do to one side, you do to the other, to maintain equality,’’ barked Ismail Abdurrashid last week, scribbling on a whiteboard as a dozen young men and women made notes beside their algebra problems. “Try another one. You’re the best and the brightest.’’

He’s a teacher in a college prep program run by an outfit called Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses. The community centers, around since 1965, used to provide food pantries and health care in addition to early education and after-school programs. Now they’re focused solely on building a college-bound culture in Dorchester, starting with toddlers; they’ve let go of everything else.

Tomorrow, to make it official, Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses will be renamed College Bound Dorchester.

If you give kids the expectation of going to college, the thinking goes, you do much more than offer them a chance at upward mobility. You also give them - and their neighbors - realistic alternatives to drugs, gangs, and teen motherhood. Get enough kids to see themselves as college material and you transform a whole neighborhood.

In addition to early education, middle school, adult ed and after-school programs, there is this college prep program on Bowdoin Street. The students have dropped out, or been kicked out, of public schools, and regret it. Or they’re required to be here by their parole officers. Or they’ve been cajoled into coming by Abdurrashid, or caseworker Kamau Parker, who once worked these very streets - dealing drugs, fighting turf wars, seeing life as cheap.

“We’re trying to get sins up off our backs,’’ Abdurrashid said.

About 150 youths come through each year. Some get their GED in four months. Some take much longer. Some stay a while then disappear, to prison or the street or minimum-wage jobs. Four who studied here have been murdered.

But in the past two years, 38 students have left the old Victorian with a GED, and 23 of those went on to college. Small numbers, sure, but it’s a remarkable start, especially when you consider how far these kids have to come.

Katarian Andrews, tall, thin, 22, dropped out of school, sold drugs, lost his fast-food job, and wore out the welcome in his mother’s home. Now he sleeps at the Pine Street Inn every night.

“I’ve been to a lot of places, but I don’t have nothin’ to show for it,’’ he said, leaning forward in a chair after class. “The shelter, it’s not an environment for a young man like myself.’’

At College Bound, he has teachers who know how to reach him. They care where he’ll be in five years’ time, and they’ve put him on track for a bank internship that will probably lead to a permanent job. But still Andrews knows that when people pass him on Bowdoin, they assume the worst.

“I don’t want to fall into people’s perceptions, ‘He’s young and black and probably not doing anything with his life,’ ’’ he said. “The gist of it is, none of us want to be failures.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is