On May 26, 1988 a class of 59 fifth graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary school were given an unimaginable gift; the promise of a college education. Abe Pollin, then the owner of the Washington Bullets and the Washington Capitals, and Melvin Cohen, then the owner of district photo, established a fund of $325,000 through the “I Have a Dream” Foundation to secure each fifth grader with the equivalent of an instate Maryland tuition to help put them through college. All the kids had to do was make it there, make it through high school.
Twenty-four years later, the results of this philanthropic experiment are revealed. Eleven of the 59 students graduated from four-year colleges, three of which attained advanced degrees. At least twelve of the students completed trade or vocational school, six students dropped out of high school, and the whereabouts of the remaining six students remain unknown. With these statistics in mind, one question remains. Was this experiment a success story?
For some, it may be easy to look at these statistics and answer no. It may be easy to look at the 37 students who did not make it to any kind of college, or the six students who never finished high school, and think Pollin and Cohen’s money went to waste. It may be easy to look at William Smith, who was busted for Cocaine just this year, or Dontrell Harrison, who killed his father in 2006, or Dakeeya Parker, who committed suicide in 2004, or those six mystery students, and wonder how this opportunity burdened the children’s lives and ultimately influenced their outcomes. However, it is the combined triumphs of the other students, and the hope that Pollin and Cohen’s promise inspired that makes this story indeed a successful one.
Seat Pleasant Elementary school is a public school located in a poor and fairly dangerous area of Prince George’s County. The students lived in neighborhoods known for drug and gang violence. Their parents, the majority of which had not attended college themselves, were determined for their kids not only to make it through college, but more importantly, to survive. Unfortunately, with the county accounting for 20% of the murders in the state of Maryland from 1985 to 2006 and the fact that according to data from 2006, 30.1% of residents over the age of 25 had graduated from college, both surviving and making it through college would be challenging feats.
What Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen gave those 59 kids and their parents on that spring day in 1988 was a chance. They were promising not only the college tuitions, but also heavy academic and non-academic guidance until the children got there. They were giving these students a chance at success, one that parents such as Rose Johnson did not think she could give her son Darone Robinson on her $13,000-a-year receptionist salary. Today, Darone works as a Pepco custormer service representative and owns a house where he lives with a family of his own.
Many others share Darone’s success. Tiffany Alston, for example, graduated from the University of Maryland, attended law school, and is currently an attorney and Maryland State Delegate. Esther Ogiata got a two-year degree from Montgomery College and is currently a pharmaceutical technician. Monica McIntyre achieved her dream of becoming a professional cellist. Wendy Fulgueras graduated from Vassar College, attended medical school, and is currently a doctor.
There are also the less obvious success stories. For instance, Jeferry Norris, a college drop out who now works as a waiter, admits “I’d be dead without the Dreamers” referring to Pollin, Cohen, and his fellow classmates. Another former student, David Carter, started working for UPS after dropping out of college at 18. Although he is happy in his job and with his family of five, he is determined that his three daughters will be the first in his family to attain a college degree. Finally, their classmate Ponloeu Le also dropped out of college, but graduated from the police academy in 1999 and joined the police force. In 2006, he was recognized as one of Prince George’s most productive police officers.
Yes, out of 59 students only eleven managed to achieve the ultimate goal, a college degree. However, as Tracy Proctor, a mentor who worked alongside Pollin and Cohen to guide the children through school and who is still in contact with the majority of the students, says, “their achievements cannot be defined by a diploma. The doctor and the pharmacist are successes, but so are the UPS driver and the police officer. They may not have college degrees, but they have a sense of purpose and ambition.” Aside from the six mystery students and the three who are dead or in jail, 50 of those original 59 students made it. Maybe not through college, and maybe not even through high school, but they made it. They survived. They are supporting themselves, and are for the most part, happy. These are the facts that truly determine the success of this heartwarming experiment.