Three Poly seniors find single-mindedness pays Disparate teens work hard and win early admission to college

December 20, 1997|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

They've been called geeks, nerds and worse. They've said no to weekend trips and yes to extra homework. They've seen middle school classmates slip away into drugs and gangs.

Now three Baltimore public school students are savoring the sweet rewards of their single-mindedness.

Michael Jackson, Evelyn Kimos and Marcus Palmer, all 17-year-old seniors at the academically demanding Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, have just been granted early admission to challenging universities.

Jackson, the shy elder son of a middle-class Chinquapin family, will be a member of the Johns Hopkins University's Class of 2002. Kimos, the self-possessed daughter of a Greek family in Mayfield, has already been accepted at Goucher College and Loyola College of Maryland, and hopes to hear good news in April from her dream school, Georgetown University. And Palmer, an ebullient electrician's son from Washington Village, will be going to Columbia University in New York, which he calls "the city where dreams come true."

The three are as unalike as their destinations and dreams. But taken together, they represent a microcosm of the public school system's best and brightest.

The secret of their success is at once simple and mysterious. The main ingredient: steady support from loving families who celebrate their successes and heal their disappointments. The essential something extra: a sense of purpose that springs from deep within them.

"I have a dream, and I know what I have to do to fulfill my dream," said Palmer. "I have to stay focused. It's a day-to-day thing."

"I think a lot of our youngsters really do have a drive," said Ian Cohen, principal of the intensely competitive citywide science and engineering school. "It's a real thirst and quest for knowledge, and that's what keeps them going."

The school known as Poly is one of three citywide, selective admission high schools in the Baltimore school system. It accepts only students who score in the upper one-third on basic skills tests, have grade averages of 80 or above in English and math, and have at least a 90 percent attendance rate. The freshman class is limited to about 350 students, and varying numbers of applicants are turned away each year, said guidance department chairman Gloria Tillery.

Of course, every high school has outstanding students, and many of the brightest don't seek early college admission.

Many prestigious colleges require early applicants to promise they'll enroll without knowing what kind of financial aid they will get. Some schools don't make those financial decisions until they've selected their entire freshman class in late spring.

And college costs have soared into the stratosphere -- the students have been told their expenses will run $32,000 a year at Hopkins and Georgetown, $34,000 at Columbia, for example -- so "every family needs financial aid," Cohen said. "Practically no one can afford to pay full price."

In the case of Poly's trio, each has been promised financial aid. Palmer's family can meet its $6,000 annual share; Jackson's bank executive father and school administrator mother think they can come up with the $12,000 he will need.

Kimos will have to wait to see exactly what the family will have to pay, she said.

Always pushed herself

The youngest child of a Greek immigrant mother and a Greek-American father, Kimos said she has always pushed lTC herself to outdo her talented older brother and sister. And hard studying, she has found, is the best way to defeat boredom.

"I know I have to do good in school to be successful in life," she said, "and since you have to do it anyway, you might as well make it interesting."

The family is close-knit, she said. Her father and uncle are co-owners of the New Lansdowne Inn, a Baltimore County restaurant, and most of the family works there at least part time. Her 81-year-old grandfather's struggles with kidney disease and his long sessions of dialysis have inspired her to volunteer one afternoon a week in the extended care unit at Union Memorial Hospital, and to take a keen interest in medical topics.

She hasn't chosen a career, she said, but in college she'll probably keep doing the things that make her happy, "keeping in touch with my culture and trying to give something back to my community."

Two dreams to fulfill

Jackson will be trying to fulfill two dreams at Hopkins: learning the skills he'll need to be an Internet entrepreneur and taking his best shot at a career in professional baseball.

"I'm not a very outgoing person sometimes," said Jackson, who plays shortstop. Baseball offers him "a chance when I don't even have to speak to show my leadership. It's when I open up the most, to my teammates."

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