Asked To ‘Dream,’ Students Beat the Odds

By Meg Sommerfeld — April 08, 1992 19 min read

NEW YORK CITY--In March 1985, a 15-year-old named David Nieves wrote:

“A man has just knocked on my door. When I go to open it he is standing there holding a key. He tell me that life has been good to him and it’s time to share that good with others. He hands me the key and says, ‘With this key, you must pick a door and open it so that your life can be as good as successful as mine was and is for me.’

“Then he start to tell me what’s beyond the doors. He says, ‘Behind those doors there are academic subjects; Remember you must pick one, that one is your future so study it well.’ Then I start to think to myself, ‘Why is he giving me this?’ It was like he read my mind and answered my questions and prayers and said, ‘You are the future and you must do what’s right for you and the world.’

“Happy birthday, Gene.’'

The recipient of this greeting was Eugene M. Lang, a multimillionaire New York City businessman who four years earlier had made a spontaneous promise to David and his 60 classmates at Public School 121. As the speaker at their 6th-grade graduation from his alma mater in Spanish Harlem, Mr. Lang suddenly voiced an impromptu pledge: If they completed high school, he would guarantee them the financial means to attend college.

Though study after study has painted a bleak picture of the future of minority youths in urban America, Mr. Lang’s proteges have thus far managed to beat the odds. Although school officials had predicted that 60 percent to 75 percent of the class would drop out of high school, 83 percent have, like Mr. Nieves, earned a high-school diploma or a General Educational Development certificate. In addition, two have received bachelor’s degrees and more than half of the group is currently enrolled in college.

What began with one 6th-grade class in 1981 has evolved into a national organization, the I Have A Dream Foundation, that seeks to make higher education a credible aspiration for 10,000 children in 45 cities.

Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts awarded the foundation its largest individual grant to date, $100,000 to support general operations.

The influence of I Have A Dream has also spread through numerous groups that have launched their own programs. A 1990 survey by the U.S. General Accounting Office uncovered approximately 124 tuition-guarantee programs, about half of which have a format similar to that of Mr. Lang’s foundation.

More Evaluation Coming

Yet there has been little formal analysis of the long-term impact of either the foundation or its spinoffs; the G.A.O. study is regarded as the only major evaluation of such programs to date.

Soon, however, more light may be shed on the topic. Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia think tank specializing in school-to-workforce issues affecting disadvantaged youths, has conducted an initial study of the I Have A Dream program in the District of Columbia and hopes to embark on a long-term study of the national foundation.

Additional empirical evidence will surface this June, when the first critical mass of second-generation “dreamers,’' as the foundation calls students enrolled in the program, graduates from high school. Currently, 175 students of 300 in the group are expected to graduate on time, and 138 have applied to college.

Over the years, Mr. Lang acknowledges, the program’s mission has gradually evolved from a simple guarantee of tuition to an intensive dropout-prevention program. While the foundation still emphasizes college as an important goal, it now “sets a high-school diploma (or G.E.D.), functional literacy, and vocational qualifications of each dreamer as its threshold objectives,’' according to a written statement.

A Net Gain

In recent interviews here, Mr. Lang and several of the students from the original class reflected on the ups and downs of their 11-year partnership.

The original promise came unrehearsed when Mr. Lang was moved by the realization that many of the mostly black and Hispanic children in the rows before him would not finish school. He called to mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and told the students that “everyone needs a dream.’'

Of the initial class of 61 students, 7 have moved away and have not kept in contact with the program. Of the remaining 54, 36 have received high-school diplomas, 9 have earned G.E.D.'s and 4 more still expect to obtain the credential.

Slightly fewer students cashed in on the promise of tuition funding, however. Thirty-two have entered college thus far; two of them earned bachelor’s degrees from Bard and Barnard colleges last year, and several others will graduate this spring.

Currently, 19 students are enrolled in four-year colleges, 6 of them full time and 13 part time, and 13 others are attending community colleges.

Of the 12 students who finished high school but did not continue their education, Mr. Lang estimates about 10 are currently employed.

“By the time we are through, two-thirds [of the group] will have the equivalent of at least two years of higher education,’' said Mr. Lang, the chairman of REFAC, a corporation he founded in 1952 that licenses and markets industrial technologies.

Some ‘Lost Souls’

However, the experience has not been without its disappointments. One student has been to jail twice, first for robbery and then on drug-distribution charges.

The first time, Mr. Lang helped him win an early release and arranged a job for him at the foundation. But the second time, the youth served a two-year prison sentence.

Mr. Lang has not given up hope, though, and said that the young man, recently released from prison, stopped by in February to enlist his aid in finding employment.

Another member of the group has struggled chronically with drug addiction; she is one of four students Mr. Lang describes as “lost souls’’ who have fallen out of touch over the years.

Seven girls became pregnant as unmarried teenagers, and at least four boys fathered children. But Mr. Lang is quick to point out that all but one of the young women still completed high school or earned a G.E.D., and that five of the seven have started college.

He views the substantial absence of other “might have beens’’ as another sign of victory. “How many of my kids did not go into drugs?,’' he asked. “How many of them didn’t get involved with the police? How many girls did not have babies?’'

While Mr. Lang can only wonder about the what-ifs, he expresses with great certainty that his considerable investment of money--more than half a million dollars to date--and time has been worthwhile.

“You sure don’t win them all,’' he said recently, “but you see a net gain in all of them.’'

Overcoming Barriers

From the very beginning, Mr. Lang said, he knew his simple pledge would require more than just writing a check. “I realized that was a rather empty promise considering what most of these children were projected to do,’' he recalled.

The statistical outlook for children who attend schools like P.S. 121 was, and continues to be, grim. In 1991, the National Commission on Children reported that 500,000 children drop out of school every year. The odds are greater in urban schools, where often only 50 percent graduate. And in the most troubled urban schools, others speculate that as many as 70 percent to 75 percent of students leave without a diploma.

“No one really expects us to go far,’' observed Denise Richardson, one of the original dreamers, now a student at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University who aspires to be a criminal lawyer.

In order to make his promise more meaningful, Mr. Lang began a process of sustained intervention. He arranged for tutoring and preparation classes for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and took the students on field trips and college tours. He encouraged the students to stop by his offices on Saturdays if they had a problem or just wanted to talk.

But early on Mr. Lang found he needed help, and hired John Rivera from the Youth Action Project, a local community center, to serve as his assistant. Mr. Rivera helped Mr. Lang bridge the cultural, socioeconomic, and generational differences between himself and the children.

The Program Expands

For years, Mr. Lang was reluctant to let reporters or researchers too close to the program.

“Frankly, I had no interest in the media,’' he said. “It wasn’t being done for public relations, it wasn’t being done for glory. It was something private and personal between me and the children.’'

But Mr. Lang changed his mind in 1985, when Mr. Rivera informed him that four years after his initial pledge, all of the children were still in school.

Realizing that others might be inspired to replicate his success, he agreed to talk to a reporter from The New York Times, which then published a front-page story about the program. The story in turn prompted a flood of inquiries from people interested in starting their own programs.

In 1986, Mr. Lang created a formal foundation at a separate downtown office to oversee the growing New York program and to respond to the outside inquiries. In June of that year, the first new projects were launched at eight other city schools.

As other new classes were adopted in Dallas, Cleveland, and elsewhere, Mr. Lang and the foundation’s leaders decided in 1989 to create a separate national organization to oversee the growing program.

Today the national foundation helps interested sponsors create new projects, monitors the progress of existing ones, and holds a national convention each year. “Our role is to try to articulate the common goals,’' said Anne Winters-Bishop, the national foundation’s executive director.

While a basic structure and guidelines exist for establishing a new project, most local chapters are given a considerable amount of autonomy by the national headquarters.

Godparents, Guardian Angels

The process of launching a new I Have A Dream project begins with the emergence of a sponsor who commits $300,000 up front to an annuity fund to cover the tuition pledge, as well as another $100,000 over the next six years to cover administrative costs.

A popular misconception about the sponsor’s tuition pledge is that it covers all college expenses. In fact, sponsors are only expected to contribute the amount it costs for a student to attend a local public college or university. If students attend a more expensive institution, they are encouraged to apply for grants and loans, and it is up to the sponsor whether to pay any additional costs.

However, the foundation has exacted commitments from 53 colleges and universities across the country to cover any remaining difference.

Once a sponsor, with the guidance of foundation leaders, locates a class to adopt, he or she hires a “project coordinator,’' whose full-time job is to maintain day-to-day contact with the students, their schools, and their families.

While sponsors may be viewed as fairy godmothers and godfathers waving a distant promise of tuition dollars, the project coordinators are like guardian angels who provide the daily guidance and support needed to make sure the students have a shot at collecting on their sponsor’s tuition offer.

The project coordinators are the unsung heroes who monitor the students’ grades and attendance, develop after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, and plan college visits and trips to plays and sports events, among other activities.

They also act as mediators for parents, “who may not have the sophistication to negotiate through the education system,’' said Lydell Carter, the director of project services in New York.

“We wear a range of hats,’' said Gregoria Feliciano, a project coordinator based at the Bank Street College of Education in New York.

And what they cannot do themselves, they turn over to a network of other individuals and agencies that can help.

The Washington chapter for example, has recruited mentors and tutors from local universities and such professional organizations as the National Association of Black Accountants. Elsewhere, chapters of Rotary International, 100 Black Men, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs have been enlisted as partners.

Always on Call

It is not unusual for project coordinators to put in 60 or 70 hours a week on the job. By the time the class reaches 9th or 10th grade, the project coordinators spend a tremendous amount of their time in transit between the various high schools where the students have scattered, sometimes as many as 15 different schools.

Most do have a “home base’’ office at a school or a community organization, though, and a fair number carry electronic pagers so they can be tracked down anytime, anywhere.

Not surprisingly, they often feel as though their day never ends. Even when he does not have an evening trip or activity planned, Mark S. Davenport, a coordinator for the Washington project, says he often spends evenings at home writing letters to theaters or sports teams to request free tickets, or calling a parent to discuss their child’s grades.

“These are my kids--they’re welcome to call me at home at any time,’' Ms. Feliciano of New York said. “I try to never say ‘no'; I don’t shrug them off.’'

The job is rigorous, challenging, and stressful--and not without its casualties. Of the New York foundation’s 23 projects, 10 of the original project coordinators have had to be replaced.

But while the job has its demanding aspects, project coordinators say they find tremendous satisfaction in their involvement.

“One of the reasons why I accepted the position was the luxury of working on a long-term basis with the students. That’s what the work is all about,’' said James Arana, a former drug counselor at Junior High School 80 in the Bronx who now oversees a project at the same school.

Not Just Millionaires

Among the 200 sponsors, there are, not surprisingly, a fair number of wealthy business executives and other prominent individuals such as Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, the executive producers of “The Cosby Show’’ and “Roseanne’'; Abe Pollin, the president of the Washington Bullets basketball team and chairman of the Washington Capitals hockey team; and David Robinson, a center for the San Antonio Spurs basketball team.

But, as foundation leaders like to point out, not all of their sponsors are rich. Arthur Caliandro, the minister of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, challenged his congregation to match the church’s contribution of $125,000 to assist a class. The church members came up with the money in 10 days, said Anthony Lopez, the executive director of the New York foundation.

Mr. Caliandro acts as the “lead sponsor’’ for the class--a designation that I Have A Dream requires in cases where a large group or institution is putting up the money.

While only individuals, or a group of no more than four, can sponsor a class, corporations like Rockwell International in Dallas have contributed funding for other sponsors to adopt a class and have provided employees to serve as volunteers.

‘Want To See You Succeed’

While sponsors have less direct contact with dreamers than the project coordinators do, most try to become as personally involved as they can.

“Every summer we’ve gotten all of the children jobs,’' said Elizabeth F. Rohatyn, the sponsor of a class in New York with her husband Felix, a prominent investment banker.

“That was probably one of the more difficult things,’' she added. But the pair still managed to find the students employment at places including the New York City Parks Department, the Estee Lauder cosmetics company, and WNET, New York’s public-television station, where Ms. Rohatyn serves as vice chairman.

Sponsors “want to see you succeed like they are,’' said DeJuan Nichelson, a 9th-grade participant in the program at Douglass Junior High School in Washington. “It’s a good opportunity,’' agreed his classmate LaVanya Lawrence.

It is this personal contact, along with the autonomy of the sponsor’s role, that draws many people to become involved.

“I think to me the most worthwhile aspect is to be able to really talk with these kids,’' Ms. Rohatyn said. “To comprehend the kinds of difficulties they have in their own lives in addition to trying to get through school and deal with peer pressure, family problems, the whole thing.’'

“One reads about it in books and articles and so forth but you don’t have a real sense of it until you’re connected to it,’' she said.

Glamour Has ‘Worn Off’

Press coverage about the program escalated in 1987, when the CBS television news show “60 Minutes’’ featured the first class, then in 11th grade, in a segment. Since then, the students have endured a stream of reporters poking into their lives, from Newsweek to People magazine, and from “CBS Sunday Morning News’’ to “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.’'

But the original glamour of the news-media coverage “has long since worn off’’ Mr. Lang said, and his proteges are quick to agree.

Some of the original students, and even Mr. Lang himself, complain that the press has tended to give sole credit for the program’s success to Mr. Lang, while failing to recognize either the students’ own perseverance or the project coordinators’ contributions.

The media attention “was too much, we were too young,’' said Mr. Nieves, who works as an office assistant at REFAC, Mr. Lang’s company, which has employed him for the past five years.

“They all ask the same questions,’' laughed Rousanna Serrano, who graduated from Barnard College last year with a degree in economics and plans to be an investment banker.

Ms. Serrano admitted that she had become tired of talking to reporters, but also said she has not minded most of the attention, because it attracts support for the foundation.

The Vision Evolves

As the foundation has grown in size, its mission has also broadened. Over the years, more and more people involved in the project found that starting the intervention in 6th grade is too late.

Recognizing this, the foundation now encourages sponsors to adopt classes in 4th or 5th grade, and it hopes eventually to start as early as kindergarten. But, Mr. Lopez pointed out, “the earlier you go, the more it’s going to cost.’'

Today, the national foundation also provides guidance to spinoffs like Project Ready in Newark and Project RAISE (Raising Ambition by Instilling Self-Esteem) in Baltimore. A foundation spokesman estimated that I Have A Dream and similar sponsorship programs are reaching close to 100,000 children.

Because the bulk of I Have A Dream sponsors’ contributions are used to pay for college tuition and other costs incurred by their projects, the national foundation is also beginning to seek more outside financial support for its endeavors.

Only about a fifth of its projected $517,000 budget this year was derived from its local affiliates; the remainder came from grants from about a dozen corporations and foundations, most in the $10,000-to-$25,000 range, and from seven individuals who donated between $5,000 and $50,000 apiece.

One of the program’s major business supporters is the International Business Machines Corporation. I.B.M. gave the national foundation $50,000 last year, in addition to providing financial, in-kind, and volunteer support to its projects in Dallas and six other cities.

While the foundation is still expanding, and expects to add 5 to 10 new adopted classes this year, its growth is slowing down in order to explore new avenues for outreach.

In a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boca Raton, Fla., a sponsor has adopted a group of children of varied ages who reside in the same housing project.

The foundation also devotes more time to lobbying for state and federal legislation. Earlier this year the foundation was cited as an influence in a provision of the U.S. Senate bill reauthorizing the Higher Education Act that includes $100 million in aid to states to develop early-intervention programs and scholarships for low-income students.

‘A Potent Formula’

The initial 1991 report by Public/Private Ventures on three I Have A Dream classes in Washington concluded that the foundation’s combination of proximate and more distant caring adults creates an “especially potent formula,’' one that many of the program’s spinoffs have emulated.

Even without many other outside evaluations, it became clear early on that eliminating the financial obstacles to students’ future advancement was not enough. What instead proved to be the crucial element, said Fred M. Newmann, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is the long-term personal involvement of an adult mentor.

“For so long we’ve worked with the blunt instruments of federal and state policy in order to assist at-risk youth,’' noted Theodore Mitchell, a Dartmouth College education professor currently visiting at Stanford University, “while Lang and others have attempted to work at the other end of the spectrum, helping at-risk youth one at a time, essentially customizing assistance.’'

Ms. Richardson, one of the original dreamers, testifies that Mr. Lang’s presence made a powerful impact “He hasn’t ever reneged on his promises’’ to her or her classmates, she said.

But even for a foundation with money and clout, trying to break the cycle of poverty and failure remains a gargantuan task.

In struggling to address this problem, sponsors “basically are saying ‘We have a stake in this too,’'' said Henry M. Levin, an economics and education professor at Stanford University.

Mr. Levin noted that sponsors are also protecting their own interests by intervening, because the students will either be society’s future assets--its laborers and taxpayers--or its liabilities--its prison inmates and welfare recipients.

But Mr. Levin and several other educators say that, as a “bottom up’’ endeavor, I Have A Dream is limited in scope.

“Let’s not just tinker at the margins, but let’s turn around the school,’' Mr. Levin said. “If these kids are not getting the kind of schooling they deserve in the first place, then it seems that should be a very high priority.’'

Success Stories

This spring Mr. Lang will be on hand at his alma mater, Swarthmore College, to see one of his dreamers, Juan Martinez, as well as his own granddaughter receive their diplomas.

Last year he flew in from Hawaii to attend Ms. Serrano’s graduation, bringing a lei from Gov. John Waihee 3rd.

And while Mr. Lang enjoys sharing anecdotes about the students like Ms. Serrano who have made it to college, he also has success stories about those who did not.

“If I had to pick out one single thing that’s important,’' he observed, “it’s the one young man who persistently dropped out of high school, who always seemed to be on the verge of getting into trouble as a dealer in drugs, who fathered a baby’’ as a teenager.

Mr. Lang said he finally resigned himself to believing the young man would never complete school and was “consigned to live an underclass life.’'

But after helping the youth find a job in building maintenance, Mr. Lang watched his life turn around. Today “he’s doing extremely well,’' Mr. Lang said. “He’s got three children, he makes a very good living. You could see how proud he is.’'

Rather than counting diplomas, Mr. Lang said, he evaluates the program’s success by whether the students have become self-sufficient individuals who “stand tall’’ in their own eyes and the eyes of their community.

“There’s no question that Lang’s program changes the opportunities available for the kids,’' observed Mr. Mitchell, the Dartmouth professor. “In doing that he shows both the amazing potential for success and the discouraging downside that says that even a program as intense and personal as his is not going to save everyone.’'

“And as policymakers,’' he said, “we should attend to both kinds of evidence.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Asked To ‘Dream,’ Students Beat the Odds