Lifting Students Above the Odds

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Shanice Barnum, 17, and Tynisha Welch, 18, are best friends. They see movies together, do schoolwork together and, at least for the past year, have dreamed together of graduating and going to college.

Their friendship and shared hopes have been nurtured by Hoop Dreams, a program that works to overcome the intimidating odds facing District students and to send them to college. "A lot of our friends didn't make it," Shanice said. "Together, we were motivated."

This Saturday, they made the trek from Southeast to the Hoop Dreams Basketball Tournament at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. There, they donned the light blue "Hoop Dreams Alumni" T-shirts, having completed the first leg of their journey in the program, which provides students with mentors, help applying to college and then scholarships to afford it.

A year ago, their paths could have diverged. Both grew up in Southeast and attended H.D. Woodson High School, where they were in the marching band and became friends in the ninth grade.

But Shanice had a knack for schoolwork, and Tynisha did not. Shanice always attended class and spent up to four hours per night on her homework, finishing high school with a 4.1 grade-point average

For much of high school, Tynisha skipped classes and was distracted by boys and other things, she said. At the end of her junior year, she had a 2.2 average.

Yet as senior year neared, both were set on attending college. They learned about the Hoop Dreams program at its satellite office in Woodson.

Hoop Dreams started as an informal effort in 1996 by Susie Kay, a Capitol Hill staffer-turned-U.S. government teacher at Woodson. That year she organized a charity basketball tournament that brought together friends, colleagues, corporate leaders and students, raising $3,000 for college scholarships.

The program grew exponentially and has since distributed millions of dollars in college scholarships to a total of 800 students. The program pairs seniors -- 80 per year from five District schools -- with mentors and provides them with SAT lessons, help in filling out college and financial aid applications, and lessons on confidence, business and other topics. It also places them in internships and continues supporting them through college. The D.C. Council recently awarded the program $500,000, its first government grant.

"My initial hope was just to bring in a support system and to encourage and motivate the kids," Kay said.

"We bring in the funding and the guidance. . . . We try to make up for the fact that a lot of students come from challenging backgrounds where there might be a void," she added.

In late September, the Hoop Dreams students kicked off the year with a teamwork-building ropes course at the University of Maryland. A month later, they met their mentors. Tynisha's is Annie Haas, 25, a project manager for a Bethesda construction company. "She knew she wanted to go to college but had no idea how to get there," Haas said. Like other mentors and students, she and Tynisha met several times a month to talk about school and life and to work on applying to colleges.

The efforts paid off. In her senior year, "I did more work than I did from ninth to 11th grade," Tynisha said. She lifted her four-year GPA to 3.0. Shanice often helped Tynisha with assignments. In April, they sat in Woodson as Shanice proofed Tynisha's essays to apply for a Hoop Dreams college scholarship.

The year wasn't always rosy. Tynisha got into five of the 12 colleges to which she applied. Shanice had hoped to go to Spelman College, the historically black women's college in Atlanta, which accepted her but offered no money.

Last month, the students met with Washington big shots, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), in the Capitol. Shanice stood before the crowd and talked about how Hoop Dreams "makes college a reality" and gave her confidence.

This month, Tynisha sat in the first row at Woodson's graduation and looked up at Shanice, the salutatorian, on stage. They wore red caps and gowns. Their mentors came to the ceremony.

Then on Saturday, they hugged and cheered for fellow Hoop Dreams alumni at the basketball event. "It was a reflection of how much we achieved, of a learning experience and a growth experience," Shanice said.

The next stop for Tynisha is Trinity University in the District, where she will study nursing and social work with the help of a $3,000 scholarship from Hoop Dreams. Shanice heads to Pennsylvania State University to study business, with a $4,000 Hoop Dreams scholarship.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company