NEW YORK – Class was already in session one recent morning at the SEO Scholars program when a boy in a black winter coat shuffled into the expansive lecture hall and moved to occupy a quiet seat at the back.
Nicole McCauley wouldn't have it. Before the boy, a high school freshman, could lower himself into the chair, she stopped the discussion, raised a hand and summoned him.
"Move forward," she said firmly, motioning him toward his classmates.
The boy lumbered down the middle aisle and took a seat among his classmates. McCauley — manager, recruiter, academic adviser and all-around cheerleader — told the 120 students to remove their coats. "Take your book bag, everything, off. Stay awhile."
The exchange would have been unremarkable any weekday at any good public school — but this was a Saturday, and the venue was New York University Law School, a few steps from Washington Square Park. The students, high school freshmen from underperforming schools throughout the city, were giving up their entire Saturday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., to study.
The payoff? A seat at a good college.
The privately funded SEO Scholars program — SEO stands for "Sponsors for Educational Opportunity" — uses an unusual approach to school reform: Rather than trying to change the system, it targets a handful of "severely undereducated" students and, through mentoring and Saturday school, all but guarantees they'll graduate from a four-year college. Once they're in college, three staffers track their attendance and grades and offer counseling all four years.
Freshmen must apply for one of about 120 spots, though the program hopes to double in size over the next few years. About 1,000 applied last year. Once they're in, students pay nothing. Books and even subway fares are covered, because student transit passes don't work on weekends.
The program is expensive — about $5,000 per student each year — but it has begun posting impressive results: SEO students, virtually all low-income, minority kids, post academic skills indistinguishable from those of their suburban peers. Last year, the program sent 100% of its graduates to four-year colleges. Nearly all earn diplomas: 91% last year, vs. about 63% for most college students.