A debut book examines a groundbreaking academic program that helps troubled teens find their ways to college.
While a student at the University of California, San Diego, Christopher Yanov was disturbed by the way the allure of gang life extinguished the dreams of so many otherwise promising youths, and he pledged to do something about it. At the age of 22, he started Reality Changers, a nonprofit organization designed to mentor at-risk teens, helping them to enter college. The initiative started modestly, with a class of four eighth-graders and a shoestring budget, operating out of a Presbyterian church. Yanov won a substantial amount of money on the game show Wheel of Fortune, which he used to fund the program, and the number of participating students eventually swelled to more than 500 and magnetized national attention. Membership in the program is demanding: students must maintain a 3.0 GPA; forswear sex, drugs, alcohol, and gangs; enroll in an extracurricular activity; and perform community service. It’s also uncompromising: in a heart-rending moment in author and psychotherapist Davenport’s book, one student is forced to resign after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. The author shadowed five Hispanic students in the program for the expanse of a year, chronicling their challenges and triumphs. More than just a study group, the organization functions as a surrogate family for its students, many of whom come from embattled homes. Davenport furnishes a journalistically taut picture that unsentimentally presents the program’s limitations as well as those of its founder. In addition, she expertly describes the legal and political horizons within which the students reside, particularly with respect to immigration. Two of the participants she followed were undocumented and lived in constant fear of deportation. One student was cautioned by his parents against visiting Dartmouth because he would have to show his ID while boarding a plane, a potentially disastrous situation. The author permits the story to expound itself, showing notable restraint from heavy-handed editorializing or cloying poeticizing. This is a rare achievement: an empirically rigorous history that engages some of the most contentious issues of the day without rancor or agenda.
A remarkably sensitive and meticulous investigation of the hurdles to higher education many teens in the U.S. face—and sometimes clear.