To get to Normandy High School, Eboni Boykin passes a blighted landscape she can’t wait to leave—streets filled with abandoned homes, litter-strewn lots and shuttered businesses.
She’s spent much of her childhood in and out of homeless shelters. She’s attended more schools than she can easily keep track of—most of them struggling urban schools where disruptions and low expectations are the norm.
But visions of the Ivy League have motivated this high school senior since she was 13, when she became captivated by a character’s similar quest on the television drama “Gilmore Girls.” This fall, she’ll fulfill her goal by heading to Columbia University on a full scholarship.
Eboni’s story in many ways is like those of many children in urban schools. It’s one filled with obstacles of poverty that many never overcome. But her ascent to the Ivy League illustrates what is possible, even at the most challenged schools, when students have a mind-set different from their circumstances.
At home, Eboni has a supportive mother who dropped out of high school and hasn’t always related to her ambitions. At Normandy High, the petite 17-year-old is one of about 25 honor students among a student body with a dropout rate in the double digits. Last year, 74 percent of students there failed the state’s English 2 exam, and 83 percent failed the math exam.
Eboni’s mother, Lekista Flurry, was 17 when she gave birth to Eboni and dropped out of Pattonville High School. Eboni rarely hears from her father.
No one from Eboni’s immediate family has graduated with a high school diploma. But when Eboni was a baby, Flurry began reading to her. She read through many of their moves, though it stopped when the family was in homeless shelters. She used letter-shaped refrigerator magnets to work on spelling.
The family struggles, but Eboni tries to focus on what’s ahead.
For years, she read anything she could find on Ivy League colleges. When she had the money, she’d order books on Amazon about how to successfully apply.
“I’ve been in love with all eight of them at one point, except for Dartmouth,” she said.
She scored a 27 on her ACT, when the average composite score at Normandy High last year was a 16. No one has ever scored higher than a 27 at the high school, according to the school district.
Last summer, Eboni attended a journalism program at Princeton University. There, instructors helped her decide on a college. She chose Columbia.
She applied, and then waited. On Dec. 8, while editing the school newspaper after school, she logged on to the university’s website. It was 4 p.m.—the time the university would post its acceptance and rejection letters for early admissions. Eboni pulled up the letter addressed to her. “Congratulations!” it began.
Along with the acceptance notification, Eboni received another letter saying all expenses were paid.
Her goal is to become a journalist.
She knows many of her college classmates will come from elite high schools with stronger academic backgrounds. And she knows she’ll have to work harder than many of them to make up for it.
While Eboni’s ACT score is high for Normandy students, it is on the bottom edge of Columbia’s incoming freshmen. Columbia’s admissions office “takes a broad range of qualifications and characteristics into consideration” when reviewing applicants, university spokeswoman Katherine Cutler said.
[Editor’s Note: The top score on the ACT is 36. Students between the 25th and 75th percentile of those accepted to Columbia score between 31 and 34 on the test.]