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Dreams fulfilled: Educational and emotional support and a scholarship as a graduation reward

For three high school graduates, the I Have A Dream program has lived up to the promise it made when they were fourth-graders

Sunday, June 16, 2002

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It is a Friday evening, and the Peabody High School auditorium comes alive with music and dancing during a rehearsal for "Once on This Island."

Delshawn Anderson, awaiting friends before the Peabody High School prom last week, heads to an Indiana University of Pennsylvania summer program next month. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Strutting her stuff on center stage is Krystal Reid.

She plays Ti Moune, a spunky peasant girl from the wrong side of the island who doesn't give up on her dreams.

Reid, 17, who was born in Wilkinsburg and moved with her parents to Garfield when she was 6, could easily be playing herself.

Life is not perfect. Her mother, Regina, is disabled; her father, Kenneth, has heart problems.

Her neighborhood, where she's cocooned by close friends and grandparents, is hit hard by crime and unemployment. There's a crack house down the street. At night, she sometimes falls asleep to gunshots.

But Reid is a dreamer.

An honors student at Peabody, she's headed to the University of Pittsburgh in the fall with more than $16,000 in scholarships.

She has tutored middle school students, taken college classes at Robert Morris University, interned as a mail clerk in a Downtown law firm and been named an outstanding citizen by a local newspaper

Bubbly, chatty and all smiles, Reid is a Dreamer, with a capital D:

In 1993, she and 94 of her fourth-grade classmates at Fort Pitt Elementary School in Garfield were welcomed into the I Have a Dream Foundation. Stay in school, they were told. Graduate from high school and receive a scholarship to a college, university or accredited vocational school.

 
 
Related information

When the Dreamers graduate, so do the foundation and its members. They move into a cheerleading role but have not picked a new group to work with. Any groups that are interested in forming another class of Dreamers may call Duane Seppi at 412-268-2298.

Photojournal: Dreams fulfilled

   
 

Reid stayed in school, and the I Have a Dream Foundation stayed with her and many of the others.

It gave them mentors and tutors and visits to college campuses. It gave them outings to museums, libraries and sporting events.

Today, more than 170 I Have a Dream projects, in 27 states and 64 cities, serve more than 13,000 Dreamers. The only Dream foundation in Pennsylvania is right here, serving the original group of students from Fort Pitt. For many of them, it was a bridge over poverty, violence and brokenness. It was a way to a better life.

The I Have a Dream Foundation gave Krystal Reid a nurturing boost.

Her parents were supportive but not overly watchful. When she was younger, they ordered her into the house at nightfall, but they allowed her to make many of her own decisions.

When she saw folks hanging out on the corner, she walked on by.

"I went to the library. I didn't let it get to me," she said. "There was something else I wanted to do."

Krystal is often tired from her blaze of activities, but she carries on.

"My parents forced me to use my brain. There were expectations," she said.

And, the good grades, school plays, the perfect attendance?

"I just thought it was the right thing to do."

The Peabody senior class has 163 students, and Krystal ranks among the top five.

She is a leader, said Peabody activities director Liza Simmons. Teachers count on her, and students do, too.

"If she has something to say," said Simmons, "other students will listen. They value her attention."

When there was a low time in Krystal's life, the I Have a Dream Foundation helped to pull her through.

Sometimes, she went to the foundation's meetings only to get free pizza. She also had a college-age mentor to speak with, a young woman who encouraged Krystal to read. No matter what, "I still got my homework done," she says.

In September, when she steps on the Pitt campus, she'll be the first in her family to go to college.

"I Have a Dream is a big part of that," said her mom, Regina. "They really pushed her. She's been blessed because of it."

An earth angel

A safe haven. That's what Tanya Gore-White calls Dreamer Hall.

It's the second floor of a small building in the East Liberty business district. From 2:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays, Dreamers can stop off and receive information on college, financial aid, SAT support and summer jobs.

For two years, Gore-White has been director of the center at 218 N. Highland Ave.

The center does what it can, Gore-White says, to keep dreams aflame in one of Pittsburgh's poorest neighborhoods.

It was created about four years ago, when program organizers realized the foundation had to grow to accommodate the students' needs.

Meeting after school at Fort Pitt Elementary wasn't going to work forever. As Dreamers got older, the foundation shifted programming to fit their needs.

In Dreamer Hall are computers, counselors and lots of straight talk from Gore-White.

She's tough love.

"My mom was a single mom," she said. "We lived in the projects in the Hill District, and she scrubbed floors. But we made it out."

Dreamers "can come in here and get respite from what might be happening in their homes," added Gore-White. "I know what it's like. I tell them I know they're going to make it, too."

Gore-White went to Robert Morris but dropped out. She went into banking before shifting to a career in social services. She married a city firefighter, has two sons and lives in Stanton Heights.

It's a nice life, but she and her husband preach to the kids that they can have a better one.

"I still kick myself," she said, for not finishing college. She'll make up for that this fall when she enrolls at Carlow's Adult Learning Center to study Business Communications.

 
 
Dreamers today

I Have a Dream recruited 95 at-risk fourth-graders from Fort Pitt Elementary School for its program in 1993. Today, as most of them approach high school graduation, there are 79 "active" Dreamers; 16 dropped out of the program.

The following numbers represent active Dreamers, followed by their present status:

43 -- Obtained high school diploma or equivalent.

36 -- Have enrolled in community college, private college or trade school.

11 -- High school juniors.

33 -- Employed.

10 -- Parents (each of four Dreamer fathers is employed and has applied to college or a trade school; two Dreamer mothers will attend community college in the fall).

3 -- Incarcerated.

77 -- Took the SAT exam in the 2001-02 academic year, with a mean score of 715 for 67 of them; the national average is 800.


Source: I Have a Dream Foundation, Pittsburgh

   
 

"I can't preach ... if I don't finish," she said.

She and her husband say the same thing to the kids:

"Don't do what we did. We did it the wrong way. Go to school. Get an education."

Many of the Dreamers do listen.

For Krystal, just thinking about her bright future gives her a spark.

"I feel like I'm on my way to being somebody. Like [former city Councilwoman] Valerie McDonald. I want to be like her. To be another black woman standing in front of others."

Krystal takes another step toward her dream next Sunday, when she graduates.

"My dad's suit is already ironed," she said, "It's hanging in his closet, ready to go."

A beautiful day

It was a clear October afternoon in 1993 when Principal Gayle Griffin ushered her 95 fourth-graders, parents and other important-looking people into Fort Pitt Elementary School.

They were celebrating Pittsburgh's version of the I Have a Dream program.

The kids were now formally part of a mentoring and tutoring program meant to get them through school and send them off to college with a scholarship in their hands.

When the celebration was over, the assembled audience encircled the children. Some called the circle a shield -- symbolic of protecting the youths from the gang and drug activity that was at its height in some neighborhoods. Others said it was a hug.

The students needed both. Fort Pitt still struggles with pupil achievement -- it recently was identified by the Pittsburgh Public Schools as an underachieving school. Eight years ago, it had low student test scores and even lower aspirations, said Griffin. When kids came to school, "I had to remove gang bandannas from their heads," she said.

Griffin had been principal at Fort Pitt for 11 years, working and connecting with people in the community who could rescue her pupils.

Her network of contacts led to Carnegie Mellon University and Eugene Lang, founder of the first I Have a Dream program, who served on an advisory council at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at CMU. They went to him for funding. He told the group: Grow your own.

Which is exactly what businessman Lang had done when he went back to his East Harlem elementary school in 1981, creating the program he named after Martin Luther King's most famous speech.

Much of the community was excited when it discovered Fort Pitt's Dreamers.

Parents were thrilled, said Griffin, who now works as associate superintendent of public schools in Newark, N.J.

They called and asked, "Is this the school where you get the college scholarship? I want my kid to go there."

Even more important, there was growing institutional support from Carnegie Mellon, the Scaife, Eden Hall, Pittsburgh and Staunton Farm foundations and other groups.

Much of the backbone has come from the Dream board and past presidents Steve Robinson and Steve Silberman.

"A lot of cooks have come together to bake this graduation cake," said Duane Seppi, a finance professor at Carnegie Mellon who is currently director of the local Dream foundation.

What we learned, said Seppi, is that "you become personally invested in a way that you don't with arm's-length donating."

However, they couldn't have done it without financial support. One significant link has been with the Richard T. Schillinger Scholarships. Since 1995, that group, named for a former Alcoa executive, has led the way in fund-raising.

The group raised roughly $180,000 toward scholarships. Each Dreamer is scheduled to get close to $1,100 per year to help close the gap in paying for college or vocational school tuition.

And what of Griffin's original 95 Dreamers, the 55 boys and 40 girls?

Of the 79 who remained in contact with I Have a Dream, 43 are graduating with high school diplomas or GED certificates; 36 others are going on to higher education at the University of Pittsburgh, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Spelman College, Community College of Allegheny County and other schools. Eleven are high school juniors.

Many of the Dreamers, who left Fort Pitt Elementary and went on to 22 different middle schools and 15 different high schools, beat the odds.

As a group, they ended the academic year with a 2.35 GPA.

There were 25 who dropped out, or 31 percent, a figure less dramatic than the 50 percent dropout rate that plagues some inner-city schools.

Suspension and absenteeism, two major obstacles to inner-city education, have decreased among Dreamers.

Ten Dreamers are parents, and three are expecting children, rates that are lower than average for Allegheny County's teen-agers and for those in Pittsburgh Public schools.

Three males are incarcerated, or 3.7 percent, less than half of the rate that hits inner cities across the nation.

Studies across the country show that where there was a Dreamer class, participants' grades, behavior and motivation were on the upswing.

But the real prize is something more difficult to measure.

It shows up in the sway of a new attitude toward education and knowing that they have given their families a chance to be proud.

"We've cried over poor choices and rejoiced over excellent ones," Griffin said "We've been there, like parents. It's what we do."

Using his brain

David Septak's first days at Fort Pitt Elementary were not pleasant.

He did not want to go to kindergarten. He kicked and screamed. He cried. He punched his dad, David Sr., in the stomach.

Young David left the school after three weeks and enrolled in a Catholic school. In the second grade, he went back to Fort Pitt.

Now, eight years later, he's glad he did. Doing so made David a part of the I Have a Dream Foundation and eligible for a scholarship.

Energetic and wise-cracking, David, 17, has lived with his father since he was 3. His dad's fiancee lives in their Bloomfield home, too, and David calls the place "a nuthouse" because it buzzes with family, girlfriends and grandchildren.

His parents are divorced, and David is the youngest of two older sisters and a brother. He has a younger half-brother who lives with his mother.

When he heads to college in the fall, like Krystal, he'll be the first in his family to go.

Hearing his son talk about his future, David Sr., who's battled alcoholism, manages a wide, easy grin.

David Sr. was a contractor until he was sidelined by an injured back. He now works part time at his daughter's Bloomfield pizza shop.

He made a living using his brawn. He wants his son to use his brain.

"I always told David to get a job in an office. I didn't want him to work hard, like me."

David's memories of growing up in Bloomfield are mostly sunny, full of family and sports-loving friends. But he saw the dark side: the drug deals under the bridge at Dean's Field, the street bullies haunting nearby corners.

Some of the ugliness crept into his own family -- his brother has been arrested for drug troubles -- but David wanted something different.

"I saw the way people acted," he said. "I didn't want to be like that or follow that. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to have a different life, to have a career."

Playing sports directed his energies elsewhere. Drugs were out. He hated the smell of smoke and even stayed away from cigarettes.

When David was ushered into the I Have a Dream Foundation in 1994, it didn't matter much to him -- not at the time.

"Is this a joke?" he asked.

He had good grades, but he just wanted to play sports. Nevertheless, a seed was planted.

"I probably stayed out of trouble," said David, "because I knew I had a chance to go to college. I didn't want to mess it up."

David lettered in golf at Schenley High School, where he's a student in the International Studies Program, with an emphasis on Spanish. After he walks across the stage at Mellon Arena on Saturday, he'll head to either the University of Pittsburgh/Titusville or Duquesne to major in sports medicine.

He is a bright guy, even if he isn't the most studious. "I rarely study," he said, often pulling together an English paper the night before it's due.

But he was member of the Junior National Honor Society in middle school, and at Schenley, his grade average hovered around 3.2. He was bumped down a little this year because of poor marks in Spanish.

Early on, David found I Have a Dream to be a steady companion. The organization's excursions kept the group close. David remained connected to people he bonded with at Fort Pitt.

When he stumbled over eighth-grade math, he turned to the I Have a Dream Foundation. It sent a tutor to his house every Wednesday. His grade went from C to A.

When's not playing sports, David works as a busboy and waiter at Abate restaurant at the Waterworks mall. He worked as a cook and delivery boy for three years at the Unique Pizza Factory, owned by his sister and her boyfriend.

David's been working since eighth grade. He bought his PlayStation and games, he pays for skiing outings, he buys his own golf equipment -- sometimes spending $600 on clubs -- and he's bought a home computer.

"For a poor boy, David has expensive taste," said his father.

Keeping the faith

Gore-White didn't have to persuade Delshawn Anderson to follow the Dreamers' path. For him, hope was dreaming of college: a place that gave black boys from tough communities a chance.

Growing up in East Liberty, he saw little that inspired hope: Not the neighbors with their electricity shut off. Not the acquaintances who had no food. Not the father who wasn't around.

His mother was there. She was encouraging and positive and battling stomach cancer.

Her illness forced Delshawn into responsibility early on.

When she was sick, it was her little boy who cooked and cleaned and became the man of the house.

His mother, Cheryl Marie, died two years ago.

Today, Delshawn, 19, tall and quiet-spoken, has a determined maturity often missing in young men his age.

He says he was propelled to succeed by family, faith and Dreamer Hall.

His grandmother and other family members pitched in to help when his mother couldn't work. Then he prayed. In church, on the porch with the woman who had Bible study, and with his mom in the hospital.

When his mother, who never graduated from high school, told him he was going to college, "I believed her."

I Have a Dream, he said, helped to open doors.

The tutoring and a Dream mentor who took Delshawn to the symphony and movies became a good friend. They knew each other for several years, before she left town when he was in the sixth grade.

The program "was a big help," he said. The movies, swimming and college tours all kept him off the street.

Neat and mannerly, Delshawn marches and dresses to his own beat. He eschews baggy jeans, stays away from FUBU, a popular urban style, and prefers what he considers to be a relaxed conservative look.

With a grade average just below B, Delshawn is headed to Indiana University of Pennsylvania next month for its summer program. He wants to major in communications or fashion design.

Marie Anderson, Delshawn's grandmother, helped to raise her grandson.

"Delshawn will do fine," she said. "He's traveled a distance. He's just pulling together pieces of his dream."

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