Chance Of A Lifetime

Aldo Gutierrez's chances of escaping the tough streets of south-central Los Angeles were no better than average. One of seven children born to Mexican immigrants, he was already a rebel and interested in gangs by the sixth grade. But at his elementary-school graduation, something astonishing happened: a wealthy California woman named Winifred Rhodes-Bea offered Aldo and his classmates a chance to escape the relentless cycle of early childbearing welfare and grinding poverty that often begins with dropping out. If they worked hard and stayed in school, Rhodes-Bea promised in the speech she delivered in the school auditorium, she would support them all the way--and pay for their college education. Aldo, now a ninth-grade scholarship student at Verbum Dei, a private Roman Catholic school, has turned his life around. "Before, I didn't really have any expectations. I used to be happy with a C," he says. "But now I want more than that." Hoping to become an engineer, Aldo will be--if all goes well--the first member of his family to graduate from high school.

Aldo is one of more than 9,000 American children in 36 cities who have been the lucky and totally unexpected beneficiaries of a program that began with one man's remarkable impulse. In 1981 multimillionaire philanthropist-inventor-entrepreneur Eugene Lang, now 70, made the first pledge to "adopt" a graduating class of sixth graders--at his own alma mater in what is now New York's East Harlem--and see them through high school and into college. The result has been heartening: of the 51 students who remained in the area, 36 are in college and nearly all of the others are employed.

Four years after it began, Lang's program went national with the establishment of the I Have a Dream (IHAD) Foundation. Donors all over the United States have signed up to shepherd inner-city classes, taking them from sixth grade through junior high and high school. In 1987, IHAD chose the sixth-grade classes at two of Los Angeles's lowest-achieving elementary schools. Last year a third class was added, for a total of 314 youngsters, who are now in the seventh and ninth grades and scattered among 47 public schools, six private schools and two juvenile-detention facilities. Seven IHAD sponsor groups (some made up of several donors) have contributed more than $2 million to enhance the youngsters' dreams. Among them are Tom Werner of the Carsey-Werner Co., producers of "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne"; the owner of a design company; an executive of the Massachusetts Mutual Insurance Co., and the owner of the K.T. Furniture Co. in Gardena, Calif.

Sponsors must do more than write a check, Rhodes-Bea stresses. They must also get involved with the students' lives and families. "If the roof leaks, you help them get it fixed," she says. "If the [student's] sister is having a baby, you help them understand that there are choices." Rhodes-Bea, the granddaughter of wealthy Beverly Hills developer Max Whittier, has been stunned by some of the living conditions she has encountered in the Dreamers' homes. In one family where a mother and three children took turns sleeping in the only bed, she provided sleeping bags. "I feel what we're doing isn't even a drop in the bucket," she says. "But everyone has to start somewhere."

Considering the substandard, even squalid,, conditions the Dreamers often live in, and the fear they face daily on the streets, it's easy to understand why many of them have difficulty focusing on a long term goat Some of them, inevitably will be overwhelmed by circumstances and won't graduate, even with all the encouragement IHAD provides The miracle is that many of them do seem to grasp how different their lives could become from those of their parents, who usually struggle to meet the family's needs on welfare or a very meager income. Almost every Dreamer has the same wish they would like to leave their frightening neighborhoods for a safer place. Cecil Harrison, a ninth grader at gang infested Edison Junior High, dreams of moving to Nova Scotia. "I'm always looking over my shoulder here," he says.

John Muir Junior High is a terrifying school, in the heart of gang territory and so dangerous that the Dreamers' parents don't want their kids staying there after classes. Last fall 61 IHAD students entered John Muir; more than half transferred out during the school year because their parents wanted them in a safer environment. James Buhl remains, a Dreamer in more ways than one. Although he's a special-ed student, he says he hopes to become a psychiatrist. Frustrated in the past by trying to keep up in regular classes, he is delighted now with a recent A he received on a spelling test. Two of James's five siblings have already graduated from high school, but he would be the first to attend college. "I'm trying," he says. "People have encouraged me, and now I really know that I can get a chance to go." His mother, Daria, says the only way she thought any of her children would attend college would be via the Army. "So thus opens doors," she says. "We have great hopes, great hopes."

Many of the hopes of the Srey family have already been realized. Scoeun Srey, 41, was a farmer in Cambodia with only eight years of schooling. He wanted a better life for his children, but under the Pol Pot regime, he says, "Nobody study. No money to spend and no market. Nothing. Only working and eat less." After the Vietnamese invaded, Srey and his family escaped to the United States. Currently, they receive welfare and live in a housing project with their five children, but those circumstances are destined to improve. Savouern, 16, a soft spoken ninth grader at Edison Junior High, became a Dreamer--and now she hopes to become a doctor. Her grades, which are mostly A's and B's, have improved since she entered the program, she says, "because I know I'm going to college."

For some Dreamers, expectations of success are more fragile and have blosssomed at a later age. "I used to think I couldn't make it," says Kevin Hicks, 15, who was a troublemaker in his first two years of junior high and got C's and D's. "Now I think I can." His mother, Charlene Allen, says Kevin began developing confidence and a sense of responsibility when IHAD got him a job at a local Jack in the Box restaurant last summer. Now school has become an educational adventure for him. "He'll come home and say to me, "Mama, let me show you what we learned today'," Charlene says. Kevin currently gets A's and B's in English, math, geography, reading and religion. "I am trying to be a better person than I was," says Kevin, who hopes to become a lawyer. Where does he see himself in 10 years? "Probably sitting somewhere in court," he says, "helping out somebody who's innocent."

An important key to IHAD's success is the structure it offers kids who have encountered few constants beyond the cycle of poverty. The providers of this new continuity are the PCs, the project coordinators. Hired by IHAD with the understanding that they will commit themselves for six years, PCs spend their mornings at the five schools where the Dreamers are concentrated; in the afternoons they make home visits or go to the three community centers where Dreamers can meet after school. They are on call 24 hours a day. PC Rigoberto Orozco, 30, has promised his group of Dreamers he'll stick with them through thick and thin. "If you leave halfway through, they get discouraged," he says, "because that's been happening to them all their lives. Every day somebody leaves them--a teacher, a friend, a social worker, a parent."

PC Henry Ward, 40, also offers a ready ear and shoulder for the boys he's in charge of at the Verbum Dei school. Two years ago he began a support group for Dreamers. They meet at the Challengers Club, a former supermarket transformed into one of three sites where Dreamers gather after school to talk to PCs, play games, study or just hang out where it's safe. The Los Angeles Lakers donated the Challengers' outdoor basketball court; the club also has an indoor court, a pool room, cooking facilities and study areas with eight computers.

The topic that comes up most often at Ward's Friday-afternoon meetings is sex. And no wonder; at the outset, Ward discovered that more than half the 13-year-olds had already had a sexual encounter. At least one ninth-grade girl in PC Floy Hawkins's group of 44 Dreamers is already pregnant, and representatives from Planned Parenthood spoke to the group in May.

But for all its attentiveness, it was only recently that IHAD started offering much help in the way of specific academic tutoring. Originally, IHAD leaders had hoped that by providing the students with cultural enrichment, they could motivate their academic performance. But no concedes Myrtle Middleton, IHAD's executive director in Los Angeles, "I think we need to institute some real academic programs immediately. I see that as the only hope for success." When the ninth-grade Dreamers recently practiced taking the Secondary School Admission Test and found the vocabulary and spelling sections extremely difficult, Middleton told them their low scores were proof that they needed tutoring and remedial work beyond their regular classes. "Thank God," she says. "It's finally hitting them," and they're beginning to ask for help. Currently Dreamers who need it are tutored from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. twice a week in math, reading, writing and geography. This summer the program will be intensified in a 10-week effort to improve their performance.

Yet the realistic goal of IHAD, Eugene Lang has emphasized, is not to turn every Dreamer into a distinguished scholar, but rather to keep the students "in the system" so that they will become productive members of society. Some children who are simply not college material will be channeled toward trade schools. Middleton estimates that 20 of the 314 Los Angeles dreamers will drop out of school before graduation, primarily because of gang activity or pregnancy. But 20 out of 314--or 6 percent--looks pretty good compared with a dropout rate of 17 percent for all of Los Angeles, and 35 percent for some innercity high schools.

Larrissa Jordan, 16, is one of IHAD's question marks. Like Kevin Hicks, she began junior high as a disruptive child, abusive and rude to teachers, counselors and fellow students. The coup de grace came when she threw a condom at one of her school counselors. With little assistance from her mother, IHAD finally got Larrissa placed in the Slauson Learning Center, a private facility for kids who need extra individual attention. There she made a remarkable turnaround, excelling in all her subjects. In April 1989 she won five awards and was voted the most popular person in the school, by both students and teachers. Last October IHAD recommended her for part-time placement this fall in regular public-school classes. "I thank IHAD because they brought me this far'" says Larrissa, who wants to go to college and become a computer technician.

But she has not been able to resist entirely the unsavory influences that pervade her neighborhood. In February she was arrested, with 10 other gang members, for having a gun at a picnic in a city park. She was sent to East Lake Juvenille Hall for four weeks. Why did the youngsters bring guns to a picnic in the first place? "Because they think another gang is going to ride down the street and shoot at them," explains Larrissa's mother, Otha. "It does happen sometimes," Larrissa adds. She's right, of course. It's another sorrowful fact of life in south-central Los Angeles. And it's this sobering reality that makes IHAD's job bolstering teenage dreams so complex--and its presence in the nation's inner cities so critical.


Many teens with poor comprehension


are destined to drop out.





Teens Who Read


Proficiently by Age 13





Hispanics           34.9%





Blacks              39.2%





Whites              63.3%





SOURCE: NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS
Join the Discussion