Joan Becker's grandmother used to say, "You find what you look for" -- advice that has been driving Becker's career since 1983, when she helped launch the University of Massachusetts Boston's Urban Scholars Program. The program is dedicated to identifying talented Boston students and preparing them for postsecondary school success through a rigorous year-round curriculum and continued support. It serves students in Boston's neighborhood schools, which have traditionally had a high percentage of low-income and at-risk students. "We believe that even given those factors, there are very talented kids in these schools and we need to go find them," she says.
Urban Scholars takes a comprehensive approach to serving its students, offering afterschool classes and tutoring, a seven-week intensive summer program at UMass Boston, and individualized college counseling and career awareness. In addition to enrolling individual students, it works closely with teachers to encourage high expectations for all students in the classroom. "We work with the teachers to help them understand how to raise the bar for all kids and provide support to those who don't meet that bar," Becker says. "Instead of pulling the [Urban Scholars] kids out of school, we want them to become a change agent in their schools to raise expectations for all students."
After completing her master's at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Becker was hired as a consultant to take the idea of Urban Scholars and turn it into a program. "We did a lot of research on traditional gifted-and-talented programs and what they looked like," she says. After nine months of planning, the pilot program was launched. Becker served as director until 1998 and was most recently promoted to vice provost for academic support services at UMass Boston. While she no longer directly runs the program, she still oversees it and is also responsible for the university's advising center, office of career services, and academic support program.
Becker initially came to the Ed School to take advantage of the flexibility and wide range of courses offered. She later returned to receive her doctorate, adding that being at the school helped her polish and improve the skills she regularly used. "The coursework at the Ed School allowed me to learn about the best practices happening nationally in school reform, and teaching and learning," she says. "I also really appreciated the wonderful network of people, both faculty and students. I continue to stay in contact with many people and work with them on different projects."
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Urban Scholars has grown from just 15 students annually to 120 and now serves both middle- and high-schoolers. Looking forward, Becker hopes it will continue to grow and become a model for similar programs at other universities. There have also been recent efforts to stabilize funding and build a formal alumni network. "We want to bring the alumni back, partly for fundraising purposes, but also so they can give back to current students and be a resource for alumni in their own career development," she says. As a way to promote this goal, they have formed an Alumni Leadership Council and are inviting many alumni to this year's anniversary celebrations.
When Urban Scholars first started, Becker says they were working in schools where most people said, "Scholars? There are no scholars in these schools." But time has proven them wrong -- today, 98 percent of Urban Scholars have enrolled in college and 86 percent have either graduated or are still in school. Echoing her grandmother, Becker says, "If you believe there are talented kids out there, and you go look for them, you will find them."
photo by Tanit Sakakini