Two Washington area businessmen went to a drug-plagued, high-crime section of Prince George’s County yesterday and offered a way out for 55 elementary school pupils: free college education.
Abe Pollin, owner of Washington’s professional hockey and basketball teams, and Melvin S. Cohen, president of a Beltsville film processing company, established a $325,000 fund to pay college tuition for the fifth graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary School, which lies just over the District line in Capitol Heights.
“When you go to college, when you’re ready to go to college, there will be funds to pay for your tuition,” Pollin told the surprised fifth graders, their families and teachers, who had been assembled in the school’s combination cafeteria and auditorium and told to expect an announcement.
Said Cohen: “We will work with you to see that you graduate. Upon your graduation, funds will be made available to you.”
First came a silence. Then parents either cried or sat as stunned as their children when they realized that the increasing cost of education could be taken off their list of worries. Then the applause and tears began.
The Seat Pleasant program is the second to be announced in the Washington area. Falls Church multimillionaire George Kettle is sponsor for a seventh-grade class at Winston Educational Center in Southeast D.C.
And two more such programs, perhaps one in the District, are expected to be announced at area schools in the near future, said Eugene Lang, the Manhattan industrialist who six years ago began the first I Have a Dream program to pay for college costs. He declined to name the schools, saying negotiations may not be complete. He said he preferred that the sponsors announce the new programs.
With investment interest and possible future donations, the Seat Pleasant fund is expected to be about $650,000 seven years from now, when it will be used by the students.
One parent who cried after yesterday’s announcement was Theresa Smith, who sat in a blue suit in the fifth row. Smith has been raising her son, William, 11, and her little brother by herself since her mother died more than 10 years ago.
“I was praying, asking the Lord to send me a way to get him to college,” said Smith, a secretary at the Department of Defense. “On my own, I do the best I can to raise them. This is a blessing.”
“I wanted to scream,” said William, who wants to be a lawyer. His claps were among the loudest when the news sank in.
Rose Robinson, who lives in Capitol Heights, couldn’t stop crying.
“It’s hard to describe. I feel so happy,” she said, her arms around her son, Darone, 11. “I have a 20-year-old daughter going to college in New York. And it’s a struggle. I save change to buy her things like shampoo or personables.”
The fifth graders who are now Dreamers illustrate the economic problems of the area. More than three-quarters get free lunches; a quarter receive food stamps and more than half are latch-key children.
But their above-average scores on the California Achievement Test show they can achieve.
To be eligible for a basic grant, which was calculated using tuition costs at area colleges and universities, the students need only graduate from high school. Besides the money, students will get special attention, field trips and additional help on class work. Their progress will be tracked by the sponsors and a project coordinator who will work out of an office at the school as a counselor, monitor, truant officer and confidant to the students.
Seat Pleasant Elementary is in the heart of a residential community that sits just around the corner from restaurants and convenience stores. Superintendent John A. Murphy said he recommended the school because it is in a neighborhood that has become demoralized by drug trafficking and increased crime.
At night, the school’s playground becomes a picnic ground for drunk revelers and drug users.
“We wanted to select a school where we could inject some hope. As the community sees this, it may rally to overcome its problems,” Murphy said.
At the school yesterday, parents and students were told only to expect a surprise when they were assembled for the announcement.
Afterward, students lined up near the stage, competing with their parents to get to their new benefactors. One pupil approached Cohen and said he wanted to be a basketball player.
“You better go talk to him,” Cohen said, pointing him toward Pollin, owner of the Washington Bullets and Washington Capitals.
Pollin and Cohen both said their effort and donations were spurred by the desire to give something back to a community that has been good to them. Cohen’s company, District Photo Inc., serves retailers throughout the Washington and Baltimore areas. Pollin, chairman of the board of Capital Centre, was a developer in Prince George’s for nearly 30 years.
Groups such as the I Have a Dream Foundation are considered charitable organizations, contributions to which are tax deductible.
Cohen and Pollin said they plan to spend time at the school, get to know the children and make themselves available to solve problems.
“We’re going to be a part of you,” Pollin told the students. “You might get tired of looking at us.”