IN THE MOST disadvantaged parts of this nation, college is simply not considered an option among blacks and other minorities. One such area can be found near the Winston Educational Center, a public school in Southeast Washington. Over 65 percent of the school's 634 black students are eligible for free lunches. To qualify for those free meals, a family of four cannot earn more than $14,300 a year. Compare that to the total cost of attending Johns Hopkins University, for example -- $16,600 a year. One can then see why a college diploma is a dream that seldom begins on the streets of the Naylor Gardens neighborhood.
But Winston's 60-student, sixth-grade class has been handed a remarkable gift by George Kettle, a multimillionaire from Falls Church. Mr. Kettle has pledged to put every member of the class through college, at an estimated cost of $600,000. Six years ago, a similar promise by Manhattan industrialist Eugene Lang made an important point. When a child knows that college is a dream that can be realized, it may spur him on. The area of East Harlem that was targeted by Mr. Lang had a dropout rate of 75 percent, but two-thirds of the students he chose will be attending college this fall.
Mr. Kettle's gift comes in the midst of a disturbing national trend. In 1975, the percentage of black high school graduates attending college peaked at 32 percent. It has been dropping steadily. One reason is that federal grants, which don't have to be paid back, are much harder to come by. Loans are still available, but they represent formidable long-term debts to poor minority families. Churches, fraternal organizations, businesses and others can help. In the District, such donations have helped the public schools ring up $6.8 million in scholarships, grants, loans and gifts for graduating high school seniors, not counting Mr. Kettle's gift. That has helped the city buck the national trend of declining black undergraduate enrollments. Six years ago, about 40 percent of the city's high school seniors went to college. School officials say the figure now stands at 59 percent.
Even a gift as generous as Mr. Kettle's will not do it all. And more than money is needed to successfully face the pressures of competitive undergraduate programs. But Mr. Kettle has given 60 students a dream they might never have had. For that, he deserves much praise