Political and Business Leaders Honor Winners of Hoop Dreams Scholarships

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

John Gass, a high school senior from Northeast Washington, sees himself in a football press box, a sportswriter churning out vivid copy. LaShay Johnson, 17, another D.C. senior, plans on entrepreneurship: first, a hair salon and, finally, owning a shopping mall.

Both are to receive awards from the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, which provides financial aid to D.C. high school students seeking to continue their education. Last night, the two students benefited from another aspect of the program: They joined about three dozen other students from five D.C high schools and dignitaries from all walks of life and many centers of power at the 10th annual congressional reception celebrating the Hoop Dreams fund and honoring its beneficiaries.

Susie Kay, the founder and a mainstay of the program, said it has helped more than 900 students from D.C. high schools go on to college, with scholarship aid ranging from $500 to $10,000 per student, for a total of about $3 million. The program also provides mentoring and internship opportunities and prepares students for the SATs, often required for college admission.

Beneath the glittering chandeliers of the U.S. Capitol's Mansfield Room, corporate executives, academic leaders and political figures emphasized the need to provide funds to make it possible for people such as Gass and Johnson to fulfill their higher-education dreams.

Gass, 18, said it was a challenge to gain acceptance to the University of Missouri, where he plans to study journalism. At his school, H.D. Woodson, fights sometimes break out. Some students skip classes. Others might be seen gambling, he said.

"A lot of the kids are unfocused and not really able to find the right path," Gass said. But, he said, the environment made him "mentally tougher."

For Johnson, a senior at Benjamin Banneker High School in Northwest, Hoop Dreams was also vital. Among other things, she said, its program of mentoring and workshops opened her eyes to the techniques of business and professional networking. She also learned about student loans and important, but frequently untaught, skills such as balancing a checking account.

She said she plans to study business and entrepreneurship at Norfolk State University next year before, she hopes, opening a large-scale suburban-style shopping mall in her home town to help create fashion, jobs and economic opportunities.

The scholarship fund can be traced to a Hoop Dreams basketball tournament begun here in 1996 by Kay, a former teacher at H.D. Woodson. The name came from a documentary film. Aided by Kay's enthusiasm, the program grew rapidly, attracting sponsors and supporters from the worlds of business and education and from both sides of the political aisle.

One of last night's honorees was former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who was described as an early Hoop Dreams supporter.

A check from Fleischer helped Kay start the basketball tournament, which led to the scholarship fund and the mentoring program.

Fleischer praised Kay as the person who "taught me about life on the other side of the river in Washington, D.C." and said the haves and have-nots in this country are separated by their access to higher education. He urged donors and supporters to keep contributing and told the scholarship recipients to "keep dreaming, keep reaching."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Paul Strauss, the District's shadow senator, emphasized the critical importance of such private nonprofit efforts as Hoop Dreams, as well as federally funded programs such as the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant, which also helps city students gain access to higher education.

"Too many District students have the ability but not the means to get that education," Strauss said. "These students not only need the education, they deserve it."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company