November 7, 2001: President's Page

PUPP: Turning the American Dream into Reality

On a beautiful summer’s day this July, I welcomed new students to Princeton. These were not entering freshmen, but a group of 23 students entering their sophomore year in local high schools. They were the first cohort in a new experimental initiative called the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), created to help educationally motivated, intellectually gifted students from low-income working-class backgrounds develop the skills necessary to gain admission to highly selective institutions of higher education and, once there, to succeed. Professor of Sociology and Master of Wilson College Miguel Centeno and Director of Teacher Preparation John Webb designed the program working with University professors and local educators.

As a Yale graduate who grew up in a working-class family, Professor Centeno knows that the chance for an excellent education can change a life, and that entry into a prestigious university can be disorienting and pose challenges as well as opportunities. As a member of the Princeton faculty and of the recent Faculty Admission Study Group, he has seen how difficult it can be to persuade such students to consider a university like Princeton or for students of working-class backgrounds to gain the appropriate credentials to be admitted. The relatively low numbers of these students in highly selective universities provide strong statistical evidence of this. Professor Centeno thought Princeton ought to do something to assist these students. The University agreed, and PUPP was born with seed funding from the Bonner Foundation and from the University (taking advantage of flexibility provided by Annual Giving).

PUPP aims to reach students between their freshman and sophomore years, and to give them the type of enrichment that students in affluent families take for granted. This summer’s 6-week program was a first step.

A typical day began with two 80-minute classes, one on marine biology and one combining literature and writing, both taught by lead teachers from partici-pating high schools, assisted by undergraduates in the Princeton Teacher Preparation Program. Students ate lunch with our undergraduates and then worked with them on learning strategies and study habits. The afternoons included a studio art class where students learned about the Italian Renaissance and worked on their own pieces. The students also became acquainted with the University’s extensive resources — Firestone Library, the athletics complexes, the art museum, the music laboratories, the observatory, etc.

One day a week was devoted to field trips designed to introduce the students to resources that comprise the kind of “cultural capital” characteristic of many applicants at highly selective schools. The students studied Mozart’s The Magic Flute, attended a New York Broadway show, and sailed on an environmental ship on Delaware Bay. While the students spent very full days on campus, they lived at home to maintain an appropriately close relationship with their families and communities. The second summer of the three-year program will feature a similar schedule and the summer before senior year will include internships with area businesses, government offices, and not-for-profit institutions to allow students to gain out-of-school work experiences. We will then assist the students and their families as they navigate through the admission application process itself. How well they fare will be a litmus test for this pilot program.

During this first summer we learned valuable lessons about the kinds of teaching methods and learning strategies that will pay the greatest dividends for this group. Because students participate in the program until graduation and throughout the school year, we have better chances of strengthening academic weaknesses and honing strengths. This approach means that the collaboration between Princeton faculty, staff and students and high school principals, guidance counselors and teachers must be strong and affirming. Program Administrator Richard Carter of Teacher Preparation is working closely with the high schools to monitor the students’ progress during the school year. Summer connections forged with undergraduates are enhanced during the academic year through field trips and continued tutorials, and we stay in touch with the families.

We will not have a full report card on the program until we complete the three-year pilot program, but we knew before the end of this first summer that for the 23 students and their families it was a great success. The students’ enthusiasm, their determination and commitment to the program were evident in spite of having to get up at 6:00 a.m. to get to classes on time — and there were virtually no absences. We know that the benefits also accrue to Princeton directly. Students in the Teacher Preparation Program had excellent opportunities to learn from master teachers. If we succeed, highly selective colleges and universities will benefit from the talents and perspectives of students who might not otherwise come to their campuses.

Perhaps our greatest hope is that some of these students will be selected by and will accept Princeton.

Our expectations and aspirations for PUPP may seem disproportionate to the numbers of students we can reach—75 in any given year, once the program is fully operational. However, the scale fits Princeton’s mission and approach to teaching, and we hope for a ripple effect: if the program flourishes here other institutions might follow our lead and create similar programs. PUPP is one way we can serve the nation and safeguard the future of higher education. Universities have played a key role in the American dream of social mobility. For the students in PUPP, Princeton is attempting to turn that dream into reality.

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