Achievers and Dropouts in a Chosen Class

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 1987; 12:00 AM

Some reactions to a Virginia multimillionaire's guarantee of free college education to the sixth graders at a Southeast Washington school were predictable enough: Parents are suddenly checking their children's homework, spending savings on other needs and even planning tours of college campuses.

But no one foresaw that in the four months since real estate magnate George Kettle made his surprise announcement at Winston Educational Center, at least 13 children would drop out of Kettle's I Have A Dream Foundation.

That's what has happened: Some families moved to Maryland, some didn't like the open classroom structure at Winston, some simply transferred their children without explanation.

"I explained to the parents that you just don't get this opportunity too often," said Brian Smith, hired by Kettle to work full time for the next six years with the "Dreamers," as the Winston elect call themselves.

"I tried to talk to the parents," Smith said. "These are mainly low-income people and their children would be the first generation to go to college. I tried to show them what opportunities come from college. There was really nothing I could do. They just couldn't see how important education is."

Smith is not giving up. He still has 50 seventh graders on his list and he is busy getting them tutors, extra attention, special trips to museums and libraries -- anything that can enrich their education, keep them in school and help them break out of the cycle of poverty and into the American mainstream.

It is a tall task. The Dreamers are a rambunctious crew now, supercharged with energy and somewhat loath to devote themselves to books.

But Smith, a native Washingtonian who formerly worked at the Interior Department, and foundation director Mary Janney hope to instill a love for learning in children of varied talents, children from homes where the connection between school and a bright future may not seem natural.

"The kids see all the Mercedes in the neighborhood and they know those people don't go to school," Smith said. "I've got some kids who just don't want to come to school. And nowadays, some kids have this attitude that if you're smart, you're a nerd. But we're working on that."

Smith has organized an ambitious schedule of stimulation for the students: volunteer tutors from Bowie State College, the infectious encouragement of community sports organizer Calvin Woodland and occasional weekend boating parties at Kettle's Virginia retreat.

The I Have A Dream Foundation, an offshoot of New York industrialist Eugene Lang's adoption of a class of Harlem schoolchildren, has gotten off to a fast start.

It was in June when Kettle, who holds the franchise for all Century 21 real estate offices in the region, stood before an assembly at Winston, 31st and Erie streets SE, and said, "I'm the whitey from Virginia. Boys and girls, if you will make a commitment to work and study hard in school, I'll make a commitment to you that each and every one of you, without exception, can go to college." Kettle says he expects the program to cost him $600,000.

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© 1987 The Washington Post Company