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(MS)2: It's tough, it's intense – and kids love it

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Such rigor is no accident, says program director Temba Maqubela. He knows what it means to surmount a challenge: A youth apartheid leader in his native South Africa, he was forced to leave and arrived in the US homeless, eventually becoming a chemistry teacher at Phillips Academy. "We want them to walk onto a campus with confidence and feel they belong, that they want and deserve it all, not that they're being done a favor," he says.

In class, Mr. Maqubela gently throws chalk at students who fall asleep and admits to having given "the test from hell." After spending a half hour explaining their test answers on the board, several students moan when he tells the class to retake the test again that night.

Maqubela says he tries to teach them life skills less easy to learn than the periodical table, such as organizing their time, the loneliness of studying, and the discipline of learning by repetition. And at a weekly meeting, he reminds them that their presence is a privilege – not a right. Some 200 students apply for the program, which is funded mostly by donations. Only 35 are accepted.

They bring a range of family and financial hardships. One applicant saw a parent shot to death by the other parent. Many depend on public assistance.

For students used to excelling without studying much, (MS)2 can be both a rude and pleasant awakening. "It's nice here to be able to think," says Ashleigh Eldemire, a first-year student from a Boston high school, where she says one teacher often fell asleep during class. "Here you want to work hard and get good grades. It's fun."

Still, adjusting to campus life can be as jolting as the class work. Many students arrive at this school of colonial brick buildings spread among wide lawns having rarely left their urban neighborhoods or rural reservations. Xavier Del Rosario of Harlem says it was so quiet his first night, he just couldn't sleep. Cassandra Toledo says she's used to silence on the Jemez Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, but had never met an African-American. "This is a big culture shock to me," she comments.

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