Steve Bumbaugh didn’t know that his star student’s mom was a crack addict. He didn’t know that she was too ashamed to ask anyone for help. And he didn’t know that she declined a college scholarship, which she beat every grim statistic to earn, because she was afraid her mom would overdose if she left home.
It was D.C. in 1988. The nation’s capital city, in the throes of the crack epidemic, also was the nation’s murder capital. About half of the teenagers in the girl’s Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast D.C. didn’t even make it past junior high school.
So when a wealthy benefactor that year offered Martece (Gooden) Yates and 66 other seventh-graders from one of the roughest neighborhoods in D.C. free college tuition, the strings attached to the deal were heavy and tangled: The students had to make it to college.
“Southeast 67,” a documentary airing at Austin’s South by Southwest festival this month, follows the stories of these students, known as “Dreamers,” two decades after their high school graduation. These 67 students attended Kramer Middle School, and most later enrolled in Eastern Senior High School.
Bumbaugh was one of two teachers assigned to mentor these students for six years, making around-the-clock house calls and ensuring they were fed, had clean clothes and showed up to school.
During the filming of the documentary, Bumbaugh and the students — who are now 40 years old — learned the extent of the challenges each of their classmates faced at home every day. The students now understood why one of their classmates disappeared for a few years after he and his six siblings moved into a homeless shelter. Twenty years later, Yates finally recognized that one of her classmates was withdrawn as a child because her mother physically abused her. And Bumbaugh discovered why Yates never made it to college.
“I actually cried when I learned about Martece. It broke my heart, I just didn’t know. I was going back 20 years and wishing that we would have known and tried to do something for her,” Bumbaugh, who is now 50 and the senior vice president of college and career access at the College Board, said in an interview. “The stories of these Dreamers are so absolutely extraordinary.”
The now-deceased Stewart Bainum — a D.C.-area millionaire who founded Choice Hotels — donated the money for the students to attend college and hired the two teachers as part of the I Have a Dream Foundation. The New York-based foundation established more than 100 similar programs throughout the country — including a couple in D.C. and one in Prince George’s County — to help provide low-income students with the chance for a college degree.
In this file photo, Eugene Lang, New York businessman who founded the I Have a Dream Foundation in 1980 and Stewart Bainum, Sr., founder of Manor Care Inc., the sponsor of 67 college bound students at Kramer Junior High School in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, 1988. Bainum, a prominent Washington businessman and philanthropist, died in 2014 at age 94
The success of the program is difficult to measure. Just six of the 67 students from Southeast graduated from college within six years of receiving their high school diploma. But, as the documentary shows, success has complex definitions.
Antwan Green — one of the Dreamers featured in the film who lived in a homeless shelter as a teen and landed in jail for selling drugs — didn’t make it to college, but his son already has a master’s degree and is on his way to a PhD. Yates, who now lives in Ward 7’s Hillcrest neighborhood, is on track to graduating from college in May with a nursing degree and her son lived in a dorm during his first year of college. Her once crack-addicted mother is now a drug abuse counselor. Another student, Tenille Warren, also is slated to graduate from college in May.
“People like Martece, who was offered a full ride to go to college and had a baby when she was 18 and didn’t go — people like her can be caricatured. People like Antwan, who sold drugs and was in prison, can be caricatured,“ said Bumbaugh, who still keeps up with many of the “Dreamers” regularly. “It is so rare for people outside of low-income black communities to get an authentic view into their lives, particularly in a way that treats them as fully formed human beings. And I think this film is able to do that.”
The 71-minute documentary was initially part of an anniversary project and wasn’t envisioned as a full documentary at first. Betsy Cox, the director and producer of “Southeast 67,” moved to D.C. after college and worked with an arts program that was involved with a “Dreamer” class in the city. She now works as a filmmaker, and Bainum’s family foundation contacted her a few years ago to film some of the Southeast students’ stories to commemorate their 20 years since high school graduation.
Cox started filming the testimonies, found them compelling, and decided there was enough material for a full-length film.
The documentary includes footage of Anacostia and the students during the 1980s and 1990s, which Cox tracked down from a British filmmaker who had shot hours of footage for a film on inequality that was never made. The rest of the film includes present-day interviews with the students, Bumbaugh, Phyllis Rumbarger — the second teacher in the program — and a brief interview with Bainum before his death in 2014.
“I had such an affinity with the Dreamer program. I think it is rare to follow a group of students into adulthood,” Cox said. “It takes us years to process the impact of any specific thing that happened in our life.”
The film premiered last year at the D.C. Independent Film Festival, and it competed for entry into South by Southwest’s education conference and festival. Yates and Bumbaugh, along with Cox, plan to travel to Austin to participate in panels on educational outcomes in high poverty areas.
Yates said she hopes the film helps people realize that success isn’t defined only by a college degree, and that some students like her face enormous obstacles just to make it out of high school. She’s witnessed D.C. change from the epicenter of the crack epidemic to a gentrifying city that people flock to for opportunities. But just because it’s no longer the “murder capital,” she says it’s important that people recognize the poverty and inequity that many children in Southeast still experience.
“There are still some Antwans and Marteces in Southeast. I am glad that we have evolved and that we are now paying more attention,” said Yates, who has worked at the American Health Care Association for nearly two decades. “But there’s still inequality, and a kid in Southeast should be getting the same education as a kid in Georgetown.”
After more than 20 years working in education, Bumbaugh, who was in his early 20s when he worked with the “Dreamers,” still believes that every child can go to college.
“What we have seen is that many of our kids did not take a straight line in what people in the middle class world would define as success,” Bumbaugh said. “They took jagged lines to become what the middle class would define as successful. I think the lesson is how we can smooth out the pathway, so that their children do not have to take jagged lines to success.”