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Eugene Lang's Unceasing Dream: An Accessible Education For All

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Washington--At first glance, it is hard to picture Eugene M. Lang as the risk-taking millionaire whose intensely personal brand of giving has made him almost a folk hero in the world of philanthropy.

There is nothing spectacular about the mild-mannered New York City businessman. Nothing dashing, except for a pencil-thin, silver moustache. Certainly nothing that reveals his revolutionary hopes for American children and their society.

But when he begins to talk about schoolchildren in the inner city, the 69-year-old philanthropist becomes a visionary and a "dreamer."

He speaks of giving all children, regardless of their life circumstances, a sense "that someone believes in them." He forsees a total restructuring, state by state, community by community, of the way the education system relates to other segments of society.

And, most important, he talks of making a college education an entitlement, rather than a privilege.

"It's going to happen," he says with conviction. "It has to come.''

Promoting State Programs

If that kind of transformation does come about, Eugene M. Lang will be able to take at least partial credit.

His highly publicized "I Have A Dream" program, in which individuals and organizations in some 24 cities have guaranteed the college tuitions of selected inner-city youths, has given new visibility to the educational plight of the disadvantaged--and to the difference one bit of hopeful intervention can make in a life.

In a recent interview here, the New York businessman expressed gratification at the program's success to date and predicted that it would have "cosmic consequences" as states begin to step in and establish similar guaranteed-tuition plans.

The "I Have a Dream" program served as the inspiration for New York State's Liberty Scholarship Program, adopted this year, and Mr. Lang offered that statewide initiative as a possible prototype.

In the New York program, participating 7th-grade students are to receive special counseling and constant monitoring to assure their success in high school. When they are ready for college, the program will pay costs at state schools that are not otherwise covered.

Mr. Lang said he is "talking to governors and legislators all over the country" who are interested in starting similar programs.

'I Have a Mission'

His matter-of-fact style often belies the energy, commitment, and clout Mr. Lang has brought to such work over the last seven years. As a profile in Manhattan Inc. magazine put it, he has the air of "a 50-year man with the railroad."

But his life has been changed, he said, since that day in 1981 when the commencement address he was giving to a class of 6th graders at P.S. 121--his own alma mater--turned into an offer of help.

The most visible sign of that change is his schedule. Prior to his stop here to receive an award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he had been in Las Vegas speaking to a convention of hospital volunteers.

On the same day, Washington's fourth "I Have a Dream" program was being inaugurated. And on the weekend he would be picking up a humanitarian award from the Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation.

He does not make these rounds on the dinner circuit for his own pleasure, he explained. He does it to try to get something for "his kids"--either another program sponsor, or volunteer counselors, or, in the case of the hospital-association convention, summer jobs for students in his program.

"I have a mission," he said. "I have something to say, and, what's more, I have something I want to get."

'Rationalized' Social Injustices

What he "has to say" is the product of another kind of change he has undergone. The close involvement with inner-city youngsters taught him, he said, "how little I knew about them."

"I certainly was aware of the disastrous social conditions," he said. "But it's one thing to know intellectually and another to appreciate it when you're right there with these children--to see first-hand the tremendous social injustices that have been rationalized into their lives."

The streets of East Harlem were rough when he, too, was growing up there, he recalled. But today's problems--broken families, drugs, poor housing, intergenerational poverty--are of a much greater magnitude.

"We have to recognize," he said, "that the incentives and motivations meaningful to a middle-class kid don't necessarily apply to those children in the inner city."

"It would seem clear that nothing is more important to a child's future than education," he added. "But these children don't see it that way, or they wouldn't drop out."

Memories of Dr. King

By contrast, Mr. Lang, studious by nature, graduated from high school at age 14. But what awaited him was a job as a bus boy at a restaurant--until the kind of personal intervention he now preaches provided a chance at upward mobility.

A waiter's illness gave him the opportunity to serve food to a Swarthmore College trustee who frequented the restaurant. That encounter led to a conversation, which eventually resulted in a scholarship to the college for Mr. Lang.

On the day in 1981 when he returned the favor, he had no idea that the promise of aid was forthcoming.

Patiently retelling the now-familiar story, he said the idea came to him as he gazed at the faces of the mostly black and Hispanic youngsters in his audience. The inspiration was a memory of Martin Luther King.

As an economic adviser in the Kennedy Administration, Mr. Lang had been in Washington on the day in 1963 that Dr. King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Joining the throng near the reflecting pool, he heard what he called "a giant of a man" make an eloquent plea for social justice.

And he invoked that memory to remind the students that "everyone needs a dream." Then, to his own surprise, he offered to supply the impetus for a dream: to pay the students $500 a college semester if they graduated from high school.

After making the promise, he said, the shock set in--not for the students, but for him.

"I guess, in a way, I panicked inwardly," he recalled.

In a school where 75 percent are expected to drop out, he knew that just coaxing them on to graduation was not enough. To ensure that those who did graduate would know enough to qualify for college, he offered tutorial help and counseling.

He also opened the doors of his Manhattan office, welcomed visits by the students at any time of need, and paid for trips out of the ghetto.

"Obviously, it took time for them to realize I was on the level and that things really were accessible," he said. "And it was worth making an effort. Gradually, they were won over because of the growing faith in our relationship."

Personal Involvement Key

It is that special relationship that has provided the foundation for the program's success, according to representatives from New York City education organizations.

"For most kids, it really isn't the cost of college that is a big problem," said Susan Amlung, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers. "Our city colleges are very low-cost and all of them qualify for financial assistance. It is more the ongoing support that makes a difference and the knowledge that someone believes in them."

She noted that the ratio of counselors to students in the New York City school system is 1 to 800.

Mr. Lang, however, provided one counselor for the 61 students in his program, and the counselor's duties extended to helping the families with housing and medical problems.

"I think it points out clearly what can happen if resources are appropriated to a youngster," said Ted Elsberg, president of the city's Council of Supervisors and Administrators. Both organizations speak highly ofthe program and of Mr. Lang.

But others have charged that giving special consideration only to a few students--those with the good fortune to be in a chosen class--may itself be unfair. It is a charge for which Mr. Lang has a ready answer.

"The fact of the matter is you can't let yourself be immobilized and do nothing because what you can do seems so little," he said.

Has Spread to 24 Cities

Mr. Lang's "I Have a Dream" program, supported by the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, is operating in 24 cities and serving 8,000 children. By the end of the year, he expects programs to be in place in 30 cities.

He is not surprised, he said, by the program's success. "If you measure your own involvement and the spirit that causes you to be involved, you recognize that what you feel is what most people feel."

Of the original 61 students at New York City's P.S. 121--students he alternately refers to as "my children" and "the dreamers"--54 are still in the program; 36 are enrolled in college, including one at Harvard University and one at Swarthmore.

Perhaps primed from all of his speeches, Mr. Lang proffered a quick cost-benefit analysis of his program.

More Benefits Than Costs

While it would cost about $250,000 to $300,000 to support one 6th-grade class through its college graduation, he said, the cost to society of one dropout can reach as high as $400,000. The total cost when all dropouts are tallied, he claimed, is a staggering $300 billion a year.

But money is not the sole consideration, Mr. Lang insisted.

When he decided he would provide whatever financial aid the P.S. 121 students needed--rather than the $500 per semester he had originally offered--he did not tell the children immediately, he said.

"I realized that [the $500] didn't mean anything. It was part of my desire to make my promise an effective one," he explained.

"I guess I also wanted to have the children come to believe in me and in the fact that I wasn't there to make sport of them or use them in any way. My reward would be the satisfaction I would get out of being with them and helping them."

That reward, he said, has come to him "many times over."

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