An offer they couldn’t refuse: College


HYATTSVILLE, MD - JUNE 5: FILE, Students (L-R) Michael Cohen, Hasani Chapman, Duana Rainey, Suziann Reid, Ponloeu Le, Jairo Chaparro, David Carter, with Tracy Proctor, who graduated a week ago, under the "I have a Dream" foundation, to talk to The Post, at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland on June 5, 1995. (Photo by Juana Arias/The Washington Post) (Juana Arias/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 15, 1995

Some are gifted and talented, others just average, and some are from families usually described as disadvantaged. But when they were in grade school together in 1988, they all got lucky.

Fifty-nine fifth-graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary School -- where just growing to adulthood sometimes is an achievement -- become the privileged few, the elite, the chosen.

Finish school, these 34 girls and 25 boys were told, and a college education is yours -- free.

“We were too young to know what it was,” said 18-year-old Ponloeu Le, of Lanham, who has been accepted at Prince George’s Community College.

But this month, most of them received their high school diplomas, and all of these newly minted graduates are college-bound.

They are the recipients of grants from local businessmen Abe Pollin and Melvin S. Cohen under the “I Have a Dream Foundation” begun in the 1980s by Manhattan industrialist Eugene Lang. Each student will receive what it costs for in-state tuition at the University of Maryland: $3,800. If they need more, the program also helps them apply for other scholarships and grants.

The program now encompasses more than 8,000 students in 25 cities where Lang has recruited millionaires to pick up the tab. In the Washington area, children in Anacostia and far Southeast also have been anointed.

Collectively, the boys and girls are known as “the Dreamers.” Their motto: “Once a Dreamer, always a Dreamer.”

The largest single group of Dreamers in Prince George’s, 22, graduated the other week from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. The graduation was held at Pollin’s USAir Arena in Landover.

“To have them graduate in my building was an especially gratifying emotional feeling for me,” said Pollin, who teamed up with Cohen, chairman of District Photo, to help the Dreamers through their middle and high school years. Cohen gave them free film and developing; Pollin offered free tickets to sports events at his arena.

The Dreamers reciprocated, with birthday presents: for Pollin, a basketball they all autographed, and for Cohen, a big “Happy Birthday” sign with all their handprints and signatures.

The two men personally involved themselves in many cases. “We used to have the kids in small groups come to my office,” Pollin said. “We’d give them hot dogs and have lunch with them.” They also provided extra funds for special needs, such as school clothes for one student whose family couldn’t afford them, and rent money in an emergency. “What we gave we received in seeing those kids mature and grow into being successful people,” Pollin said.

A key factor in that success has been Tracy Proctor, 31, a Howard University graduate hired to work intensively with the students.

Over the seven years, Proctor has been mentor, cheerleader, coach and trouble-shooter. For those in need, he arranged special tutoring and transportation, at a cost of $18,000 or so to Pollin and Cohen, who also are helping him gain a master’s degree in sports marketing.

Suziann Reid, 18, an Eleanor Roosevelt High School student, was sent to Colorado for Olympic track training, at the sponsors’ expense. She hopes to become a physician or physical therapist.

There have been a few problems along the way. Some students got into trouble. Some did drugs. A couple of girls got pregnant. Somebody’s house burned down. Four or five ran away. “There was always something going up or coming up,” Pollin said.

Cambodian-born Le had a rough time in middle school when, by his own admission, he got in with the wrong crowd. “They pulled me in the wrong direction. I started skipping class with them,” he said. “Mr. Proctor started telling me, It’s not right. You’ll feel sorry later.’ “ Le straightened up.

“I feel really good about {Le},” Proctor said. “He talks to other Dreamers and tells them, Don’t blow this opportunity.’ “

“We all had personal struggles,” said Hasani Chapman, 17, who was heavily recruited by schools after he scored 1,160 on his college boards. “We always kind of went to Mr. Proctor if we have something we can’t deal with or need help. We know he’s always gonna be there.”

Ultimately, 12 of the 59 dropped out of school or lost contact with the program. But of those who stuck with it, one graduated early and is attending Vassar College, 42 graduated with their class, and four others are returning in the fall to finish up.

Ten new graduates will attend the University of Maryland at College Park, and one each is headed for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Johns Hopkins, the University of Texas, Drexel, Bethune Bookman College and the University of the District of Columbia. Two dozen others are expected to attend community colleges, technical or trade schools. In addition, two girls graduating but having babies are postponing college for a year.

One day last week, seven Dreamers gathered at Northwestern to talk about their lives and luck. “Everybody I told, their mouth would just drop,” said Chapman, 17, a Roosevelt graduate who’s bound for College Park.

“That’s how it was when I was working at McDonald’s,” chimed in David Carter, 18, of Hyattsville, the youngest of five children and the first one going to college. “My manager asked, How can I get in?’ “

The answer, of course, was luck, as Le said: “You have to be there in the right time at the right place.” Which isn’t to say it’s all been easy. But the special attention along the way has “been very helpful for all the kids, especially the mentoring from Mr. Proctor,” said Maureen Chapman, Hasani’s mother.

Joked Proctor, “They all know when they make it big, they’re supposed to give me . . . “ Le finishes the sentence: “a Corvette.” Proctor adds, “That’s right, black” and “a sweat shirt from whatever college they go to.”

Pollin also has a request of the Dreamers. “I told them they better invite me {to their college graduation}, because I intend to go,” he said. “If the good Lord allows me to be there, I will be there.”

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments