Simple As ABC: College prep program helps students excel
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
This article first appeared as the cover story in the December edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
NEARLY FIVE DECADES AGO, when the Simsbury A Better Chance program was established in 1973, the Jackson 5 band was among the most popular groups in the nation.
One of their biggest hits — “ABC” — connects with the program’s name and educational focus, featuring the following lyrics that are famous to Top 40 radio fans of the 1970s:
“You went to school to learn … things you never, never knew before / Like i before e except after c / And why 2 plus 2 makes 4 ... A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3 – simple as do-re-mi, A-B-C, 1-2-3 / Baby, you and me”
As a college preparatory program, Simsbury A Better Chance — aka Simsbury ABC — goes far beyond the mere ABCs.
The nonprofit aims to make a difference in the lives of academically talented young men of color, with the goal of increasing the number of college-educated people of color in America.
“They come from school systems that would impair their chances to achieve their potential,” says Simsbury ABC board president Robert Pearce. “We provide room, board and supervision … and see them through four years at Simsbury High School at no cost to their parents.”
Simsbury ABC essentially utilizes a private boarding school model via a public school education at Simsbury High. Hailing from across the country, students reside in the Simsbury ABC house on Hopmeadow Street under the supervision of Dr. Ron Brown, ABC’s resident director who lives on-site with the students and provides daily guidance, support and mentoring.
Simsbury ABC is part of the national A Better Chance organization that was founded in 1963. At first, the program matched students exclusively with private schools, but now ABC works with both private and public schools.
Brown grew up in Cleveland and participated in the ABC program himself, graduating from Pomfret School in western Connecticut and ultimately earning a doctorate from Harvard University.
Before joining the Simsbury ABC team for the 2017-18 school year, he was a college professor.
ABC’s resident tutor, Douglas Nielson, also lives on-site with Brown and the ABC scholars. His day job dovetails perfectly with the program: Nielson is a business teacher and yearbook adviser at Simsbury High School.
There are five Simsbury ABC scholars this school year, listed here with their class and hometown:
• Junior Anthony Shaw — Bridgeport, Conn.
• Sophomore Muna Nwafor — Newark, N.J.
• Sophomore Bryson Tsogt-Erdine — Starkville, Miss.
• Freshman Nana-Poku Boakye — Weymouth, Mass.
• Freshman Ethan Vasquez — Anaheim, Calif.
Bryson joined Simsbury ABC this year as a sophomore, while the others started as freshmen.
In an exclusive interview with Today Magazine, the students spoke of their appreciation for the program and the Simsbury community — Pearce requested anonymity for the students’ quotes:
• “Being in Simsbury has been quite the transition, from city life to a rural atmosphere — I’m used to a bustling and hustling environment with many cars and industrial buildings. Socially, I’m not one to congregate, but many of my classmates have become friends. I am enjoying this Simsbury adventure.”
• “It’s been a new experience with a college prep curriculum and rigorous academics. It’s been easy connecting with people — the teachers and staff offer extra help. I appreciate the community focus.”
• “My older sister was in the ABC program at Phillips Exeter Academy — I saw the incredible opportunities she had and wanted to be part of it. The facilities here in Simsbury, like the library, are easily accessible and the teachers are helpful.”
• “I have appreciated the rigorous academics and the athletics. The teachers are nice and the Simsbury students are easy to get along with — it’s been a great experience.”
• “I wanted to be part of the ABC program so I could get into a good college, get a good job, make money, and use it to have a good life. The people here are nice and willing to help out — they’re not the type of kids to bully or laugh at you if you make a mistake. The teachers offer lots of help and support.”
Further lyrics from the Jackson 5 “ABC” song resonate — “Reading, writing, arithmetic are the branches of the learning tree / But listen, without the roots of love every day … your education ain’t complete”
The comments of these five ABC scholars indicate they sense the love and care of the Simsbury community as they cultivate a love of learning transcending the ABCs. This is as evident as the MLK in CT Memorial at the Simsbury Free Library, a stone’s throw from the ABC house.
Do we also need to keep growing as a community in expressing care and delivering liberty and justice for all? This is evident too.
Pearce’s exclusive Q&A with Today Magazine follows:
Mission of Simsbury ABC:
To increase the number of college-educated people of color in the United States. We competitively select students from around the country; they come from school systems that would impair their chances to achieve their potential. We pro-vide room, board and supervision for up to eight students — two each: freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors — and see them through four years at Simsbury High School at no cost to their parents.
Most fulfilling aspect of your work?
In the 48 years of the program, we have graduated over 85 students, and over 95% have finished college in four years. Our graduates all speak about the difference that Simsbury ABC made in their lives.
Your biggest obstacle, and how you overcome it?
Recruiting new students. Historically, our candidates have come only from the National ABC, but we are now developing other sources of candidates.
“The teachers are nice and the Simsbury students are easy to get along with — it’s been a great experience” — a Simsbury ABC scholar
Goals for the next 1-5 years?
Fortify our recruitment process to make recruiting reliable.
A board of 20+ volunteers oversees the program. Each student has a volunteer adviser who oversees academic progress. Each student also has a volunteer host family in town that provides a monthly home away from home environment.
Anecdote that illustrates how you fulfill your mission:
Our students have come from diverse backgrounds, including African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, many of whom qualify for the school free lunch program and who come from as far away as California, Texas, Illinois, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi.
How has the COVID pandemic impacted your work?
Since we are a school-based program, our students were impacted as all other students in Simsbury. Further, recruitment was curtailed as parents were reluctant to send their children away to a boarding program.
Interesting stats + numbers:
Nationally among all college students, only about 60% graduate in four years. That statistic for Simsbury ABC graduates is about 95% — over half of our students are the first members of their families to attend college.
Besides donations, how is your work funded?
About 75% of our program is funded by individual donations from citizens of Simsbury and surrounding towns. The balance comes from businesses, foundations and local civic institutions — no funds come from any government entity.
How closely do you work with other agencies/nonprofits?
Simsbury ABC works very closely with Simsbury High School.
What do you appreciate most about the Farmington Valley?
Simsbury is a most generous community both in terms of donations and volunteerism.
Number of Employees:
Full-time: 2 — Part-time: 3
• Chrissi Bonchick – Simsbury ABC Program Coordinator
860-264-6188 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Nonprofit Board Officers:
Robert Pearce, president • Kara Petras, vice president • Andrew Estell, treasurer • Linda Schofield, past president • about 20 board members overall +
• This article was first published as the cover story in the December 2021 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist
• Today Magazine covers the heart of Connecticut's Farmington Valley, recording the underreported upside of the Valley's five core towns — Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury