Fulfilling Lives Will Be Cooke's Enduring Legacy

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

His teachers knew Dashell Laryea was a child with enormous potential -- a combination of academic skill, charm, musical talent and intellectual hunger. But living in subsidized housing, with a mother who worked long hours, evenings and weekends as a security guard, in a school that couldn't offer him much challenge, Dashell's chances of reaching his peak seemed slim.

Along came the combined resources of Washington Redskins fans and all the other consumers who once upon a time made Jack Kent Cooke a wildly rich man. Cooke, the owner of sports teams and media outlets who died in 1997, left the bulk of his billion-dollar fortune to a foundation that now dispenses $30 million a year to change the lives of young people with high-end minds and low-end family incomes.

Thanks to the Cooke Foundation, which chose Dashell as one of its Young Scholars when he was in eighth grade, the Fairfax County 15-year-old attends the private Flint Hill School, starring in the Oakton school's a capella singing group, competing in the Model U.N. program, running track, playing football and taking on rigorous courses. When he decided to take up the piano, the foundation paid for his lessons and got him a piano. Cooke spends about $15,000 a year on each scholar.

The foundation will help Dashell blaze a path toward a top-flight college. In most cases, its financial support will continue through college, even beyond. Each Young Scholar is assigned an adviser who works with 25 students, lining up summer programs, music lessons, advanced math classes -- whatever helps the teenager reach higher.

For strong students from families without the advantages of affluence, the Young Scholars program, now in its sixth year, levels the field. Suddenly, kids stuck in mediocre schools can attend summer programs where, for the first time, they are surrounded by other students who thrive on high-intensity academics. Although the scholars live in 41 states, the foundation, based in Leesburg, reserves 20 percent of the slots for the Washington area, in recognition of Cooke's connection to the Redskins and this region.

Does being singled out for success place too great a burden on such young students? "That's always in the back of my mind," Dashell says, "but even without the foundation, my mom was always very big on always doing your best. I already had that attitude, and that's what attracted the foundation to me."

Cheryl Scott-Mouzon, Dashell's Cooke adviser, says the foundation tries to make certain both that the students are not overloaded and that financial obstacles to their intellectual and artistic progress are pushed aside. But the adviser's role extends well beyond writing checks:

The mother of a scholar in Montgomery County called recently to ask whether her son should be in a school play. Son and mother said yes; father said it was too much.

"I'm putting you on speakerphone," the mother announced. Scott-Mouzon talked the family through the boy's many activities and helped figure out how to manage his time. The adviser suggested that the boy seek an ensemble part rather than a lead role. The father acceded, but with a warning to the adviser: "I'm holding you responsible," he said. The boy's performance was stellar -- on stage and in class.

When Dashell met the other Young Scholars at a summer program, he says, "we were all telling the same story to each other about how it was such a bore to go to school before, and now it is hard, it is challenging, it's what we wanted."

Not many football fans associate the Cooke name with compassion. The man who built one of professional sports' worst venues was known more for monuments to himself than for charitable pursuits.

Matthew Quinn, executive director of the foundation, says Cooke, who regretted never attending college, "wanted this foundation to burnish his name, but he also wanted the scholars to make life better for others. Thirty years from now, no one will remember that he owned the Washington Redskins. But one hundred years from now, they will know the Jack Kent Cooke Scholars. If our scholars become great teachers, doctors, musicians because of what we gave them, that's how his name will live on."

Although most foundations spend their education money on the most troubled students, Cooke decided to focus on high achievers. Finding 75 scholars a year is a challenge, especially since some public school systems are less than enthusiastic about programs aimed at high achievers. "Some public schools worry that we're there to take their best and brightest and put them in private schools, so there's some resistance there," says Scott-Mouzon.

Although the advisers do steer some students to top private schools if the local school has a weak curriculum, plenty of the scholars stay in the public system. Cooke Scholars are enrolled at Thomas Jefferson, Chantilly and Centerville high schools in Fairfax, Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's, Einstein and Richard Montgomery in Montgomery, and Banneker in the District, as well as at the Flint Hill and Georgetown Day private schools.

"We are building a group of students who will be leaders in society," says foundation Vice President Josh Wyner. "It's important for our future leaders to be people who know what it means to have been without."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company