Many kids of color in urban areas across the United States lack access to quality high school education because of their socio-economic situation. “This really stymies their chance of going to a good college,” said Diane Nissen, an IBM ISV Sizing Specialist with Techline Global Centre of Excellence in Philadephia. After hearing about a program that tries to help kids in this situation, Diane got involved with A Better Chance in Lower Merion (ABC-LM). ABC is a national college preparatory program that offers a challenging educational opportunity to academically talented, economically disadvantaged minority male students who show a willingness to succeed academically.
For students chosen by the Lower Merion chapter in Pennsylvania, being selected means leaving their families and moving to suburban Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where they live in an ABC House.
Helping young men take control of their future
“The boys stay in the ABC House that is close to a good public high school in the area – Lower Merion High School,” explained Diane. “We’re asking 14 year old kids to move away from home and become independent.”
“The purpose of the program is to take kids out of their environmentally challenged neighborhood — where it’s not cool to be smart — and bring them to a suburban setting,” said Paul Elcock, ABC House Resident Director and a Rhodes Scholar.
Diane Nissen volunteers with A Better Chance to help young men take control of their future.
The house can host up to nine boys at one time. The courage they show in moving to a new state away from friends and family is what makes Diane dedicated to the program. She has been a board member for over 15 years. Her contributions include fund raising efforts, hiring and supporting staff and serving as an academic advisor for students. She also chairs the committee that selects students who will join the program each year.
Students come from all over the East Coast of the United States, including New York, and Washington, DC. The boys will spend up to four years boarding at the ABC House to attain their high school diploma. The ABC House is paid for through fundraising. About $110,000 yearly is raised to run the house in which the boys live. Based on Diane’s extensive volunteer hours, the program has received several IBM Community Grants over the years. “It’s been wonderful that IBM has provided that added support,” she said.
The cost of tuition for the boys is covered by the Lower Merion School District. The school has been welcoming ABC scholars to their student body for 36 years. The program provides comprehensive support to the students including live-in tutors and a Resident Director. Besides mandatory study hall five nights a week, house staff arranges fun weekend activities. Each student is also given a laptop by the school district for use at home and in school to complete academic assignments.
ABC-LM provides private SAT tutoring for all juniors and seniors. Each ABC student has a support network that includes an academic advisor, a host family, and a house relations committee. Diane serves as an academic advisor. She is currently advising Wayne Phillips-Gelly, 16, from New York City. She attends parent-teacher meetings, stepping in for parents who are out of state. She monitors his academic progress and encourages him where she can. Last summer she helped Wayne apply for a week-long program at Carleton College in Minnesota. He was among 50 kids chosen from across the country.
“This could lead to him being invited back and gave him a taste of the college experience,” said Diane. “They are required to take responsibility for their lives. It takes immense inner strength to take advantage of this opportunity.”
“ABC has been pretty great,” said Wayne, a junior. “There’s always support – not just on academics, but like an extension of my family. I can go to someone who is not just a tutor, but also a friend.”
“The boys mature enormously during their four years at ABC House,” said Diane. “To be part of this program and see the students’ progress every year is very rewarding.”
College bound after ABC
All graduates of ABC-LM have gone on to four-year college programs with over 95% graduating in four years. Recent graduates have attended Haverford, Bowdoin, Drexel, SUNY Stony Brook, Syracuse University, and the University of Maryland. ABC–LM is a member school of the national ABC organization. Over 1500 students apply to the program each year in the hopes of moving away from home for a better high school education. Each local chapter is responsible for screening, interviewing and choosing new ABC scholars they will board and guide through high school.
Diane Nissen has worked for IBM for 42 years, starting in Endicott, New York. She was a math and computer science teacher in New Orleans through IBM’s faculty loan program. Since 1995 she has worked in Philadelphia, providing customers with server sizing services for SAP software implementations.