Bounding Upward, One Student at a Time

By Jacob M. Appel

Even in a city of miracles, where the fantastic occurs so frequently that it often drifts off into the routine, the Upward Bound program at New York University's Metro Center for Urban Education is eye opening...literally. For the visually impaired join other New York City high school students with disabilities in this thirteen year old education initiative aimed at first- generation Americans from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

The results, according to director Pat Ryan, are truly miraculous. "We were the first Upward Bound program in the country to target students with physical disabilities," Ryan explained. "Some of our kids suffer from severe disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, neurologic disorders...others appears to be fine but have severe asthma or sickle cell anemia or are low vision but not legally blind....We try to start working with these students [as early as] tenth grade and stay with them until they're seniors and then follow up and work with them in college if they need us."

The Upward Bound program involves a serious commitment on the part of the student. Classes are held on Saturdays from September through June and participants are expected to attend a six week session during the summer. These courses, on top of the ordinary academic responsibilities of high school, cut into time that might otherwise be spent socializing. The benefits for participants range from academic assistance to instruction in problem solving and conflict resolution to advice and counseling on how to function with a disability in a world that remains biased toward the able-bodied.

Ryan portrays her students and staff as being part of a family. She demonstrated the sincerity of this description by noting that in recent weeks she has tried to track down one program graduate whom she worries about because she has not heard from him in several months and has attempted to recruit another on the recommendation of a former Upward Bound participant. Ryan knows each and every student and one is impressed with her determination to keep abreast of their personal lives. As a tribute to her dedication, four Upward Bound graduates -- one a quadruple amputee -- have invited her to attend their graduation from Queens College this spring.

"I'd say a kid with muscular dystrophy comes to mind," Ryan said, describing proto-typical Upward Bound student. "He wasn't sure that he was going to college and was slightly withdrawn. Yet coming here and interacting with others helped him a lot....He came in a wheelchair and explained that he couldn't get into his biology lab because it was not wheelchair accessible and wanted to know what he should do....We told him to talk to his teacher and his principal and he worked things out in a way he never saw as possible. He went on to a two year college, changed his focus entirely, and is now studying human services and living on his own. He travels to and from college and work on his own too....Many kids come in like that and we help them make the transition from high school to college and the adult world."

Unfortunately, far more students wish to participate in Upward Bound than Ryan can accommodate in her fifty slots. Among teens who fit all of the required criteria, she adopts a "first come, first served" admissions process. "The selection process is the hardest part," she noted with regret. Ryan also expressed her concern that many students who could benefit greatly from Upward Bound are turned away because they do not have the proper immigration paperwork.

Upward Bound is one of the oldest federally funded education programs. Its enabling legislation is the Higher Education Act, among the most durable components of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." All participants nationwide hail from economically dis-advantaged backgrounds but otherwise come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and from both rural and urban areas; physically disabled and able-bodied students both take part, depending on the specific program. Now thirty years old and with more than seven hundred branches in all fifty states, the Upward Bound chapters form a closely knit community. Ryan observed that if a student from her program moves to a different state, she will contact the nearest Upward Bound director and assist the youth in adjusting to the new program. Only this past week, she received a referral from an Upward Bound program in rural Tennessee. Upward Bound's national character helps ensure a safety valve from participants no matter where they venture in the United States. Demonstrating the program's effort to embrace all qualified students, Ryan noted she has even made efforts in recent years to include students without physical disabilities from Staten Island under the rubric of "geographically isolated" youth. Staten Island does not have an Upward Bound chapter of its own.

Even in a program dedicated to performing miracles, however, Ryan's leadership is a fortunate and fortuitous blessing. The director's background is not in education but in pediatric physical rehabilitation. When a reorganization plan threatened her job at the Rusk Institute, she answered a classified advertisement in the New York Times. A positive recommendation from someone who recognized her name gave her an edge and her background dealing with disabled children secured her the job. "I never thought I'd end up in education," she commented with some surprise.

Ryan cautioned that all of Upward Bound's graduates are not success stories. "Occasionally, a kids will come back and say, 'I blew it!' They'll have flunked math or dropped out of college and they'll want a second chance.... We tell them that it's not too late." In fact, Ryan often helps these students reapply to college. For behind most of Upward Bound's miracles is a combination of hard work and perseverance -- a tribute to participating students and a dedicated teaching staff that tellingly includes several former Upward Bound students.