Imagine knowing as a sixth-grader that your entire college education will be funded. This is what businessman Eugene Lang has done for more than 15,000 students in the United States and New Zealand, 62 of whom are in Charlottesville.
Lang founded the I Have A Dream Foundation in 1981, the result of being asked to deliver the graduation address at one of his alma maters, P.S. 121, an East Harlem elementary school in New York City.
The speech he had planned to give involved telling the students that anything can be achieved through hard work. But as he approached the podium, the school's principal told him that 75 percent of the students would never graduate from high school. So Lang adjusted his speech. He promised to pay for each graduating sixth-grader's college education if they earned their high school diplomas.
Erica Lloyd, program director of foundation's Charlottesville chapter and a 2002 alumna of the Curry School of Education, said 2012 is a big year for the chapter: It marks the high school graduation of the area's first I Have a Dream cohort.
Local businessmen Chris Poe and Jeff Gaffney brought the I Have a Dream program to Charlottesville in fall 2000. The organization is funded mostly through individuals' donations as well as support from the Geismar Family Foundation, United Way of the Thomas Jefferson Area, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and the Junior League of Charlottesville. I Have a Dream–Charlottesville has also received grants from the Weed and Seed Network of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The 56 dreamers selected for the program were kindergarteners at Clark Elementary School, and 53 of them remain in the program. Clark was chosen because, at that time, it had the highest concentration of poverty in Charlottesville, with more than 80 percent of the students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches.
Today, I Have a Dream-Charlottesville has grown to 62 students, 27 male and 35 female, who are now in high school. Forty-seven of them are set to graduate in June and four graduated last year. Five dreamers are currently working on GEDs and one more will finish this summer. The final five were held back in first grade and will graduate next June.
Nearly half of the "dreamers" attend Charlottesville High School, while the rest attend high schools in other counties, including Albemarle, Fluvanna, Orange, Louisa, Chesterfield, Buckingham, Cumberland, Waynesboro and Prince William. Three dreamers moved out of state and currently attend school in North Carolina and Hawaii.
So far, seven dreamers have been accepted to a university for next year, and 80 percent of are on track to attend either a four-year university or community college come fall, Lloyd said.
Under the I Have a Dream model, dreamers are either an entire grade level in a single elementary school or entire age group in a single public housing development. If an elementary school class is chosen, any student who transfers into that particular class enters the I Have a Dream program as well. The students are not picked based on their abilities, but rather the foundation makes sure that each "dreamer" has the opportunity to make it to college, Lloyd explained.
When she began student-teaching during her studies at Curry, she saw many children struggling in school, but their academic and social problems did not always stem from school itself; rather many students were frequently dealing with other obstacles outside of school. Lloyd wanted to work for a program that would allow her to help students gain control over their lives while at the same time succeeding academically.
"Our kids have had some tough periods in their lives," she said. Through I Have a Dream, "College goes from being this nebulous idea to being reality," she said. "I'm very fortunate to see them come out on the other side of that."
U.Va.'s involvement with I Have a Dream occurs through Madison House's Youth Mentoring program, which sends 10 U.Va. students to volunteer with the dreamers four days a week, and through the work of a U.Va. sorority.
Kamille Seward, a fourth-year government major in the College of Arts & Sciences who is also pursuing her master's degree at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Charysse Hairston, a fourth-year American politics and African-American Studies double major, are co-program directors of the Madison House-I Have a Dream partnership.
The Madison House volunteers spend most of their time tutoring the dreamers, especially preparing them for taking standardized tests. They also accompany the dreamers to various U.Va. events, including basketball and football games.
"The U.Va. students come in and care so much about seeing our kids succeed," said Lloyd, who characterized them as both "patient" and "enthusiastic."
Often, U.Va. students bring their classwork with them so that the dreamers have a role model right in front of them showing them how to study and what hard work can achieve. Hairston said she also likes to help the dreamers see that college is about much more than class – it is about cultivating relationships and interests and taking the next step. This idea makes the dreamers excited and willing to attend college.
Seward's and Hairston's experiences with I Have a Dream have helped shape their future plans.
Hairston is currently applying to Teach for America, and Seward hopes to pursue a career in education policy after she earns her master's in social justice policy.
Seward said she is inspired by the idea I Have a Dream embodies – that no matter your background, if you have enough help and assistance you can succeed in high school, college and beyond. She hopes to bring a similar ethic to the rest of the nation through education policy.
In addition to the Madison House volunteers, the Zeta Beta chapter of Gamma Phi Beta at U.Va. has been volunteering with I Have a Dream for nearly 12 years. In addition to tutoring the dreamers, the Gamma Phi Beta also does a number of fun activities with the students. For example, the female dreamers were invited to the sorority for a "manicures and movies" night; the sorority sisters packed goodie bags for the dreamers to take to their SATs and ACTs, stuffed with snacks, pencils and encouraging messages.
Additionally, the chapter has helped raise money for I Have a Dream through events such as car washes and soccer tournaments.
Jamie Swogger, a third-year computer science and computer engineering double major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and co-philanthropy chair of Gamma Phi Beta, said that the sorority's reason for volunteering with I Have a Dream is very similar to the reason Lang began the program in the first place.
"Our real motivation comes from being able to work with the dreamers to accomplish their goals and being there to see their dreams become a reality," she said.
— By Lisa Littman