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The long pathway to a diploma

Reams of statistics and stacks of reports have been written on education. Seldom, however, are students themselves asked what their experience has been as they move through the institutionalized world of school. In a series beginning today, Monitor writer Christopher Swan interviews young people in Columbus, Ohio; Weston, Mass.; Hartford, Conn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and New York - drawing from them a very personal picture of life in the the classroom.

We will look in on seven schools spanning grade school to university. We will attempt to read the faces of students and will ask them to tell us their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. We will travel backward from college to grade school, as if following a river back to its source. One thing is clear: The early experiences in school seem easier to understand, once you see where they've led.

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We are not presenting a statistical sample from which to draw sweeping conclusions. Instead, we give you a portrait of school life, as you would likely find it, if you were to spend seven days in seven schools.

IT'S a long way back. And still a long way to go.

Judith Ambrose sits on the lawn of Bronx Community College's vest-pocket campus and looks back at a school career that began 20 years ago in the ghetto schools of Boston's Dorchester section and will probably take five years more to complete.

The years so far have been marked by indirection, government intervention, changes brought about by family moves, a marriage that interrupted Mrs. Ambrose's schooling, a pregnancy that interrupted it again, and finally a determined effort to get it all finished.

Her story may not be typical of the majority of students, but it does embody the patchwork of institutional and personal choices that seem to make up the lives of people moving through the vast American educational system.

Her feelings were not so different from those of students interviewed in six other, very different schools.

The common bond among these far-flung youngsters is the feeling of flying blind, of laboring to pass muster on an obstacle course with no apparent destination. For example:

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* A second-grader in Weston, Mass., tells a reporter that he wants to go to MIT, showing the same degree of curious uncertainty evidenced by a high school senior in Jacksonville, Fla., several weeks earlier, who chose the same school because ''they have a good computer program, and I'm into computers.''

* ''Sometimes it's really bad,'' muses another high school senior in Jacksonville. ''You do feel like you're just getting pushed through.''

* ''Most of the time, I just do the work,'' says a student at a high school in Hartford, Conn. ''I don't think about it too much. I just work and wait to see what will happen.''

* A freshman at Ohio State University in Columbus says, ''It's very unsettling - all the indecision, not knowing what your major is or where you are going.''

For the most part, education was simply an environment in which these students found themselves: It surrounded and absorbed their lives, even if it didn't always engage them intellectually.

By the time they leave school, most students will have worked harder and longer - with a hazier sense of what they are getting - than they will for any other purchase during the rest of their lives. Even at a relatively modest salary of $12,000 a year, the time they invest in 16 years of schooling would add up to a dollar value of $192,000, not including tuition, books, and living costs, or any time spent in graduate school.

In the end, they will have bought themselves an education with all this expended effort. More important, their progress - or lack of it - through the world of school will have helped shape their characters in ways that they and their parents could not have predicted.

Judith Ambrose, who floated downstream through the city schools in Boston, could not have predicted what impact a change in schooling would have on her life.

Mrs. Ambrose remembers that, in Dorchester and Roxbury, you could move right through the system and graduate without ever getting an education. Like her friends, she took failure for granted - until one day when her mother told her that they would take advantage of the Metco busing program, which ships kids out of the inner city into suburban Boston schools. She was going to attend Wellesley High.

That school in Wellesley, an affluent town about 10 miles west of Boston, changed Judith Ambrose's life. It's just that simple.

''If it hadn't been for Metco,'' she says, ''I'd probably be out on the street somewhere, following my friends.

''It was a big change,'' she remembers. ''I couldn't get used to it for a year. The students were so pleasant; the teachers were so patient. I was used to having work just thrown at me. But at Wellesley they made sure you did it right.''

Now she is here at Bronx Community College. Her sister-in-law is watching her three children. Her husband's construction job is paying for tuition. And she is grinding away at the business of getting a diploma.

''Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I don't feel like coming,'' she reflects quietly. ''But then I look at my kids, and I know I have to come.''

She sees college as a way to make a better life for her children and herself. ''It's almost impossible to make any money without some kind of diploma,'' she says bluntly. For her purposes, Bronx Community College - with its handy location, moderate entrance requirements, and price advantages - is perfect.

She attends about 12 class periods a week for her major in education. In a typical one, her psychology class, Mrs. Ambrose sits in the front row. On the afternoon of my visit, the professor is moving through a chapter on developmental psychology, covering the required ground without pausing to consider interesting side issues.

Mrs. Ambrose looks neither to the right nor the left. She is trying to grasp the pieces of the puzzle the class will be asked to put back together in a test the next week. To her, it's a hurdle to jump. Nothing more.

And, with few exceptions, that's how students in almost every school visited for this report see much of the class material presented to them.

''The goal is not to get an education,'' Ohio State senior Jonathan Sokobin observes dryly. ''The goal is to pass.''

Change the setting and the course of study and you have in Mrs. Ambrose's psychology class the same basic experience as that in a second-grade reading class or a high school Spanish course. An instructor reels off the required data of his or her specialty. Depending on the degree of inspiration and determination with which the reeling off is done, the minds behind those faces will be either engaged or remote.

Tomorrow: A tale of two universities

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