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Linda Saris

Salem students learn the power of higher education. By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey // Photographs by Patrick Marasco

John Turcios projects an air of confidence when he talks about balancing his options for financing college between grants and student loans. A hint of pride enters the 22-year-old’s voice when he says that his parents have offered to help with the bill for his degree in social work at Salem State University-provided, of course, he gets good grades.

The same pride emanates from Linda Saris, director of Salem CyberSpace, as she listens to his plans. Turcios is one of the first graduates of Salem CyberSpace’s College Success program, which helps low-income and immigrant students complete post-secondary education.

From its humble beginnings in 2002 as a free Internet cafe that offered homework help to just seven low-income residents of Salem’s Point section, Salem CyberSpace-a program of North Shore Community Action Programs, based in Peabody-now serves more than 200 children. Students have access to a variety of science enrichment projects, homework and tutoring help, and the lauded College Success program.

To date, 100 percent of the students who participate in College Success graduate high school and enter post-secondary education. The program was rolled out this spring to schools in Gloucester and Peabody. Graduates of the program, many of whom came to America with no English skills, are now attending schools like Bryn Mawr College, Bucknell University, and Endicott College.

“For many of our students, there is a gap between high school graduation and college readiness,” Saris says. “If you have to take a lot of remedial classes, you tend to get discouraged and drop out.”

Saris is the program’s visionary. She grew up in Boston and attended Girls’ Latin in Dorchester (now called Boston Latin Academy)-a top public school that anyone could attend as long as they passed the entrance exam. “It really leveled the playing field,” she says. “It didn’t matter if you were black or Chinese or poor. Everyone was on track to go to college.”

Saris wanted to create a similar environment-a place that worked with older low-income youth with little or no academic support. “There aren’t a lot of programs that work with teenagers; it’s very difficult to run an academic center for older kids,” she says. “But I’ve found that older kids respond just as well when there is a caring adult influence in their lives.”