Jomerro McMillian sat at the kitchen table on a Saturday night back in 1971, ruler in hand, reading The Scarlet Letter looking up every word he didn’t know in the dictionary. He was every parent's and teacher’s dream.
Lindalea Ludwick, then a history teacher at Daniel Hand High School and a host parent for McMillian, who had come to Madison from North Carolina for the first year of the A Better Chance (ABC) program, couldn’t believe any teenage boy would turn down an invitation to the movies to sit at home studying.
Times have not changed all that much in the 40 years of the program’s existence. Students are still incredibly dedicated. They no longer live with their host families but instead in a cozy home at the corner of Green Hill and Durham roads, known as the Roby House.
I’ve often driven by the ABC house and wondered about its past, present and future.
Since Ludwick was there at the beginning, I had a conversation with her recently to learn more about the history of the Madison ABC house. She is a past president of the ABC board and a current chair of the student selection committee.
Ludwick explained that the program began in the 1960s at Dartmouth College as a way to help academically talented minority students reach their potential through education. At that time, students were placed in private boarding schools. Now five or six boys live in the house with a resident director and a tutor and attend Daniel Hand High School. A board of directors and host families provide further support, guidance and friendship.
“The first students came in the 1970 -71 school year and it was quite controversial at that time,” Ludwick said. “The cities were burning in the 1960s and there were lots of protests. The first reaction to the program was positive, but then some people were afraid that we were importing city problems into Madison. It was the summer of the Bobby Seale trial.”
Town officials then decided to ask voters whether they wanted an ABC house in the town. When the referendum passed, the Board of Education decided to try to charge tuition for the ABC students.
A lawyer in town sued the Board of Ed arguing that the ABC students should not pay tuition in the same way foreign exchange students do not pay tuition.
“That lawsuit ended up being a positive thing for us because we had to put the tuition money in escrow,” Ludwick remembers. “We had a pot of money to use for the Roby house.”
The ABC scholars are kids who have demonstrated strong academic skills. They are chosen after taking a standardized academic test and interviewing with a panel of board members.
The students live a structured life with group study hours from 7 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. (A lot of Madison parents wish this same schedule on their own kids.) Many of the ABC scholars have gone on to prestigious colleges such as Amherst, Dartmouth and Wesleyan.
“Initially, Jomerro said he wasn’t smart enough for college,” Ludwick recalls. “He did well in my American Studies class, went on to Drew University and got an MBA from Wharton. He’s one of our shining stars. He came back to visit in 2000. He’s living in North Carolina and helping kids in his community.”
Not every town in Connecticut has an ABC house. Madison is lucky that way. Very lucky.
The ABC house is funded through private donations, so when the envelope comes through the mail, be sure to save it. I know I will.