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Jamel Oeser-Sweat has plenty of excuses to fail. He is black and lives in a New York housing project. His father died when he was 3, and his mother struggles to provide for her family. Many of his friends have dropped out of school and taken up the street life familiar to thousands of young New Yorkers.

When he takes the elevator to his family's apartment, sometimes he has to stand on tiptoe to avoid the urine puddles. The apartment itself is small and minimally furnished. Only recently the family acquired a telephone, according to an article in Education Digest.But this fall, Jamel will go to Harvard University to pursue his interests in science, the article says. He was one of 40 finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind in the country. He has earned scholarship assistance and appears to be headed for a brilliant future.

Stories such as Jamel's confirm what should be obvious to everyone: Realities such as being born poor and with minority status, living in a difficult environment and struggling to maintain a daily existence are not in themselves factors that doom a child to failure.

There is an inner spirit that leads the Jamels of the world to resist the odds and go on to triumph. Probably many children in Jamel's circumstances have a spark of that inner spirit, but it is crushed somewhere along the way. Why it survives in some and not in others should be a question educators ask themselves on a regular basis.

The Education Digest article focuses on the Westinghouse science program, but it also provides some clues to what was different in Jamel's life that put him on the high road to success.

His mother obviously cared. Some in her circumstances - widowed and with children, untrained and doomed to minimal employment - might have packed it in, given up and let events take their course. You could read a lot into the sentence that simply says she "struggled, with intermittent success, to keep her family together."

New York provided an exceptional education opportunity for Jamel. He attends Martin Luther King High School, a magnet school that provides enriched curriculum and more concentrated studies for students with ability.

In addition, he found a mentor, Edward J. Bottone, a microbiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Bottone did more than maintain a casual relationship with the young student. He gave him a challenge: to find the cause of a mysterious skin rash that was troubling some patients. After sleuthing down several alleys, Jamel linked the rash to bacteria found on luffa sponges and other materials used to abrade dead skin from patients.

Summing up, that means Jamel had three advantages: Support at home, an educational system that recognized individual needs, and an adult who took an active interest in him and his abilities, challenging his innate intellect.

Add those to the inherent spirit Jamel brought to the equation, and you have a singular success in a situation that seemed to have all the ingredients leading to failure.

Utah has its share of children at risk. Finding and nourishing just one Jamel would be worth every effort education and society could make.