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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 12/20/2011

Seat Pleasant 59: Behind the series


On May 26, 1988, 59 fifth graders from Seat Pleasant Elementary School in Seat Pleasant, Md., were offered scholarships to college if they completed high school. Now, 23 years later, the students reflect on the opportunity they were given and where it has taken their lives. (Courtesy of Tracy Proctor.)
Readers have been following Paul Schwartzman’s three-part series on the Seat Pleasant 59, a group of fifth-graders from Seat Pleasant Elementary School who were offered scholarships to college in May of 1988. The last article of the series, The Legacy, appears in Tuesday’s paper. Schwartzman discussed the series in a live chat on Monday and will be checking in on reader comments throughout the day. Here, Lynda Robinson, editor of the series, explains how the story came about.

Back in March, Petula Dvorak wrote a column about a contentious gay-marriage debate roiling Maryland. She focused her column on a freshman state delegate from Prince George’s County named Tiffany Alston (D), who’d supported a controversial bill to legalize gay marriage but had come under intense pressure from her constituents and changed her mind.

In searching for background material about Alston as I edited the column, I came across a Washington City Paper story by Dave McKenna that noted that she’d been part of a special fifth-grade class at Seat Pleasant Elementary.

In 1988, Alston’s class at Seat Pleasant had been adopted by Washington sports mogul Abe Pollin and another wealthy businessman named Melvin Cohen. Pollin and Cohen promised that if the 11-year-olds stayed in school, the two men would pay for them to go to college. The City Paper story included a sentence that immediately intrigued me. It said that 49 of the 59 members of the class had graduated from high school and that many had at least some college education.

I immediately wanted to know what had happened to every one of the Seat Pleasant 59. When I told my boss, Vernon Loeb, the Post’s local editor, about it, he immediately wanted to know what had happened to each member of the class, too.

So we assigned the story to one of the Post’s best reporters and writers: Paul Schwartzman. It was a daunting reporting assignment because there were so many people, and not all of them were eager to talk to a reporter about their lives. As the project took shape, it involved many other Post journalists, including photographer Bonnie Jo Mount, videographer Whitney Shefte, researcher Jennifer Jenkins, local innovations editor James Buck and interactive projects editor Kat Downs.

In the end, Paul wasn’t able to find out what had happened to all 59. But he interviewed more than 40 people, including 27 of the students, who are now in their 30s; their mentor, Tracy Proctor; their parents, teachers and school administrators; and relatives of Pollin and Cohen, who are both deceased. From his hundreds of hours of interviews, he was able to draw a compelling portrait of the class and how the promise of college scholarships altered their lives.

Related:

Seat Pleasant 59: Following the Dreamers (full series)

Part One: The Promise

Part Two: The Reality

Part Three: The Legacy

By Lynda Robinson  |  08:00 AM ET, 12/20/2011

 
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