The Washington Post

The Seat Pleasant 59: Where are the scholarship recipients today?

Dec 19, 2011

In 1988, a fifth-grade class at Seat Pleasant Elementary was offered an extraordinary gift: the promise of a college education, paid for by two wealthy Washington businessmen. At Seat Pleasant, the promise generated a wave of publicity and excitement, transforming the fifth-graders into symbols of hope in their own neighborhoods and well beyond. Yet their good fortune also became a burden that endured long after they reached adulthood. More than 20 years later, Post reporter Paul Schwartzman spent months tracking down what happened to the Seat Pleasant 59 for a three-part series.

Live chat with Schwartzman and Jeffery Norris, one of the Seat Pleasant 59, about what happened to the Seat Pleasant 59 "Dreamers." Ask questions and submit your opinions now.

Part One: The Promise
Part Two: The Reality
(Part Three is coming soon.)

Hi, I'm Paul Schwartzman and I've spent the better part of 2011 talking to the men and women who were part of the Seat Pleasant Elementary School class adopted by Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen in 1988. It has been a very interesting experience, and I'm happy to take questions. First, though, let me add that I am joined by Jeffery Norris, one of the students from the class who is now 34 years old and works as the musical director at a DC church. Ok. Fire away.

Hi. How's everything going? Let's get it started.

I guess it shouldn't have been a big surprise that simply promising to pay for college tuition isn't a panacea for struggling schools. It's one piece of the puzzle. Were there any valuable lessons to this experiment that might help schools today?

I think what the Dreamers' experience shows is that education is a very complicated process, and that no amount of money or attention  guarantees a successful outcome. I'm not sure about the lessons, but it seems that what's crucial is what goes on at home and the values that are instilled in children. 

Thank you for this wonderful series. I hope those people who believe poor communities are only full of drug dealers and prostitutes, and children have no good role models, will read this and gain some insight. That said, my question is: Paul, as you've been immersed in the history and lives of these "students," do you have any thoughts on a strategy that may have been even more effective? And Jeffery, with your perspective now as an adult, do you have any thoughts on the same - a possible better strategy? Thank you.

I think Tracy Proctor did everything he could do, but he was one guy with 59 students. There was no way he could fill in for whatever was going on at home. That said, I think that a lot of the kids came away with a different idea of what's possible for themselves and their children. And that's what leads to real change.

Our class was the 1st in the metro area, they did the best they knew being the model

Tracy Proctor, the project coordinator, has just joined us.

You've clearly put what must have been a year's worth of research into this series. I can't imagine how long it took you to find the participants and interview them. How has your life been affected by learning about this program and the outcome? What are your takeaways?

It took months to find folks, and once I found them it could take months to actually talk to them with any depth. I was grateful to those who shared their experience. Virtually everything I learned was really interesting. There were many Dreamers who did not want to talk, and I attributed their reluctance to part of what is the legacy of this effort: that it was a hugely complicated undertaking with many intended and unintended consequences. My overall takeaway is that a gift is a complicated thing to receive.

For any of you: A wealthy person comes to you next week and says they are considering doing this same "gift" and seeking your advice on whether or not to do it. What would you say?

Understand that a gift can be a burden if it isn't properly prepared and cared for. Be sensitive to the idea that you can be imposing a set of values on someone who doesn't share them. Provide support, both at school and home.

What happened to Tracy Proctor after the kids finished high school?

Hello, I was fortunate to stay with this dreamer class all the way though college.  After they college graduation in 2006, I was asked to be the Program Director of another IHAD Dreamers Class in DC with the Sponsor being George Kettle and Ed Wilczynski. The Brent Dreamer Class.

Did many of the children express feeling of anxiety over the higher expectations people were likely putting upon them?

I don't know that they would describe it as anxiety, but many did recount to me how their parents sat them down and told them of what was at stake, and how they couldn't blow their opportunity. One day they were kids who were just kids. The next day, they were kids with a great opportunity and a lot of eyes on them. It's a lot of pressure.

Isn't the reality simply that no matter how wonderfully run, no scholarship program can solve ALL problems? Shouldn't we be grateful that this one helped more children than would have been helped otherwise? And that, like Eugene Lang's original program, it may have inspired more people to help more kids?

Absolutely. No question that there were many benefits to this effort. But it's an extremely complex undertaking and one shouldn't gloss over those nuances.

Jeffery, what do you think are some things you think society, city governments, or other citizens can do to help young children such as your former class? I realize there are probably many - could you name a few? Thank you.

Bring more resorces, funding, to these lower ecnomics areas for we all can have a I Have A Dream experience...with society and city government as our sporser!

Paul, Was it difficult for Tracy Proctor to convince the benefactors of the markers of tangible success besides completing college? Thanks, Karen

Hi Karen. Tracy can answer for himself but my sense from talking to him is that their expectations for the kids evolved as the program evolved, so that by the end they were accepting of trade school as a viable option. A college degree wasn't for everyone.

In your article, there were references to some individuals who still aspire to go to college. Does the offer of paying college tuition for them still stand after Abe Pollin's passing?

 We had up to 2007 to use the money they had 4 us!

I am one of the 59. This is not so much a question, but a statement. Although many of us had benefited tremendously from this "experiment" as it's being called - I do believe that the timing of this opportunity might have made a difference. As an 11 year old, college was so for away from our realm of thinking at that time, that for many of us, the magnitude of what was being offered went straight over our heads. Then, in the years to come, to have to live up to that pressure of being "the chosen ones." The THOUGHT of college didn't cross many of our minds - because we were too young to understand what it meant to to go college. I think had this program been offered later on in our lives - maybe in the 8th grade or even in High school when most students start thinking about higher education - maybe it would have weighed more heavily on us...because reaching that goal would have "seemed" a little more tangible and not so far off in the distant future as it did when we were in the 5th grade. Just a thought.

Thanks for sharing this. What you are saying is exactly the sense I picked up from my interviews with more than 25 of the 59 Dreamers.

Thank you for this great series; I have very much enjoyed reading it. I don't know if I am taking a leap, but when you wrote about Darone Robinson, you made it clear that his mother was behind him 100%. I am not saying that other parents weren't behind their kids, but this mom sounded involved. How involved were the other parents? Do you feel that that was really the key? I mean clear, without money, there are the kids who wouldn't have graduated, but how involved were the parents in general? How much of an impact? I'd be interested in a Parental Scholarship, because I honestly believe that without parents helping their kids, no amount of money or promises will make a difference.

Thanks fort your question. I can't speak for each kid but, yes, I think Rose Johnson had a lot to do with keeping Darone on track. In the series, William Smith talks of his mother's strict rules driving him to misbehave. So I guess the answer is, not just that the parents are involved but how they are involved.

Similar stuff is happening here at the Ron Clark Academy (in Atlanta). The man in charge gets involved in every aspect of the kids' lives and follows them throughout.  Many of the students get scholarships to high school (it's for 5-8 grades). They accept 30 kids a year. Of course, these kids are self selected (parents decide to apply) and the Seat Pleasant kids were just completely randomnly picked...

In my book that a BLESSING

Hi Paul, this is fascinating story, and I thank you for taking the time to do the research and write such a compelling piece. I applaud Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen for thinking outside of the box in their sposorship of this class. Obviously, the approach was a bit flawed - the promise of a college education can't overcome the reality of the kids' circumstances on the ground - but I do give them credit for trying to make an impact. I'm curious to know if you were able to tease out any consistent traits exhibited in those kids who succeeeded in getting their education. Was it their tenacity, a support network, luck, all of the above?

What I learned is there's no way of predicting. Look at Jeffery. He has done a 360 degree turn with his life. Look at William Smith. He did not. There was a bright kid who scored high on his SATs then dropped out of college. There was a Dreamer who considers herself a failure for not having become a doctor. I think she's remarkable in that she had four kids, got a two year college degree and holds a fulltime job.

Why does the story focus more heavily on the boys in the story? For example, the story mentions the problems of pregnancy faced by various girls, but does not explore this problem in the same depth as the struggles faced by the boys. Is this a result of, for example, which families were willing to talk? Were the sources more likely to talk about the boys than the girls? Or were there other factors involved?

Thanks for the question. Why some characters become bigger and some smaller is also a complicated mix. But generally speaking I had somewhat of an easier time talking in greater depth with a clique of guys, who may have decided among themselves that it was fine to talk to me. For that I am grateful. I had many great conversations with the women, including Wendy Fulgueras, Monica McIntyre and Tiffany Alston. I'm grateful to them, as well. 

These days much of the blame of failing students is placed on poor teaching. Jeffrey, being that you were a student that was included in what may be seen as a group where outside influences such as violence, and poverty would have played a bigger part of their development, what would you say played the biggest impact on you deciding on what your future would be after high school?

A need to survive....

When did the Dreamers project officially end?

In 2007, we allowed a few dreamers to complete their academic programs because the classes that they needed was not being offered at that time.

How much support did Tracy Proctor provide? Was that too much work for one person?

looking back at the program after several years, yes it is a lot for one person to handle.  I think that it would be great to have a female assistant and a partime emloyee to help with seting up trips and finding other resources to help the Program Director focus on the dreamers progress.

I wonder how the children of this former class are fairing. Are they on a better track?

Interesting question. I know from talking to the Dreamers -- particularly those who did not finish college -- that they have rigorous expectations for their own children. Even if they themselves didn't get degrees, they expect their kids will.

Have other examples of similar classes been studied? What were the results? It was interesting to hear about the support coordinator. Do you think even more of that would have been a better use of funds? Finally it said all of the funds were used as of 2009. What were they used on since not all members of the class went to college?

We also allowed the dreamers to go to Trade and Technical schools.  Public Private Ventures did a study on other long term mentor/educational programs and found that IHAD was one of the top 5 long term mentoring programs in the country.

Will there be an article that discusses the success of the other students? I understand from reading the article that many students had horrific events take place in their lives, but certainly not all of them. It seems like the article focused mainly on the worst part of their lives - what about their triumphs?

Thansk for the question. Actually, I believe that a number of successes are cited. Not only Darone Robinson's college degree, bu the fact that Jeffery Norris was able to move away from a life of dealing drugs to holding a fulltime job playing music in a church. There are many examples of Dreamers holding good jobs and living well even if they didn't get a college degree.

I thought the kids were suppose to use the money to attend University of MD, was it a change so they could go where ever they were accepted?

Yes, that is correct.  We wanted to give the dreamers every opportunity to be successful.  Some dreamers did not get accepted to UMD.  But the got accepted to PGCC or other local schools.

Jeffery and Tracy, what take-aways would you like the series' readers to have?

nothing....the Dream is still alive

One of my mottos that I encourage people to have of which I learned from my Pastor at SOFCC is Hang with those who have your answers, get away from those who have your problems.  Get a person you can follow to get to where you want to be or go.  If you want to be a lawyer, go find a lawyer to talk to and become a student.

Several of the examples of success stories seem like they are kids that would have been successful anyway (daughter of a doctor and a nurse; child that, in 5th grade, was already playing the cello; girl who emerged as a track star). Aside from the one student who graduated from Morgan, are there examples of others that succeeded (without the criminal detours) that you think wouldn't have been likely to succeed without the Dreamers program?

You truely can or cannot say they would or would not have suceeded.  All I can say is that my presence at the schools, in the dreamers neighborhoods on a daily basis was agreat influence to many of them.  Till this day I am still learning and seeing the effect that I had on my dreamers.

As I see it, many of the problems kids face are not necessarily at home or in the school but instead are in the surrounding community. Communities have great deal of influence on kids and their expectations. If the program would have provided a way for students and their families to live outside of Seat Pleasant in communities with strong schools and less crime, do you think its impact would have been greater, even without the promise of scholarships? Obviously this would've been a more expensive undertaking

Not nessisarily,  we offered and did that option as well.  As the years went by, we explored with the idea of getting some of these dreamers out of DC and into another place to have a fresh less crime or distraction place to live.  That had its challenges as well.

After meeting all those people and thinking about this for a year, what do you think could really help people get out of poverty?  If there was a benefactor asking you now what he/she should do, what do you think they should do?

I would do another dreamer class, but with more paid support or staff for the class.  This program works.  I have gone through 3 dreamer classes and had very good success with more dreamers graduating or finishing school than thus leaving or dropping out.  I had the tendence to put or focus on the dreamer who was starting to loose focus than those who were on course of graduating, but my heart was to serve all of the dreamers with everything that I had  or could think of to create other opportunities for them to be  or have success.

This question is for all, given what you know now, could an project like this work now and if so, what would be some recommendations to ensure a higher rate of success?

Nothing is guranteed when you are dealing with people.  All you can do is create opportunities and doors for the dreamers to explore or try.  Having someone around to encourage them  will help keep them more focus than not having someone their at the schools checking on their attendance, meeting with teachers and administrators.  Help solve challenges at that present time and day when it happens.  Yes this project can work now.  If I had enough funds to sponsor my own dreamers class, I would do that.  Possible two. 

I had the opposite takeaway. It seems 5th grade is already too late to instill basic values in education (nevermind college). By that age, we are well enough aware how we should or shouldn't interact socially with peers and adults and whether or not school is valuable in our own minds. Therefore, it might be better to start this kind of 'experiment' with 5 year-olds instead of 5th graders

you are exactly right.  The IHAD programs now start with K5 grades.  The younger the better.

After all your research on the topic, is this the best way for philanthropists to help under privileged children succeed? Is anyone doing similar programs NOW?

Yes, the Federal Govt start a program call GEAR UP.  It was patterned after the "I Have A Dream" Foundation.  GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness for Undergraduate Programs.

Just wondering who fared better as a sub-group, males or females? Why do you think? Also, the idea of African-American urban poverty has taken such a stronghold in this country since the 1970s, do you think something like this would be similar or different in a rural community, Appalachia, South, American Indian reservation...? Any ideas?

It appears that success through education is a totally abstract concept to these students. Do you think that if they were mentored by local professionals this would help?

They were, I pulled on all types of organization.  The private sector from SAIC, the Federal Govt., Micrsoft, Howard University, Georgetown U.  The Business Enterprises, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Graduate Chapters.

Thanks for a great series. Missing from your story was the schools system, teachers, and principals. Did any of the participants speaking about the influence of these invididuals? We consistently hear about the value of a great teacher/principal.

Thanks for the question. We decided early on that what we really wanted was to get inside the kids' lives. Tracy Proctor represented the role of the teacher/mentor, and his observations and experiences were invaluable for helping us make sense of all this.

Thank you Paul for answering my question about Tracy's relationship with the benefactors. Tracy, could you tell us what it was like sharing information with the funders about the successes and failures of the Dreamers? Did it take awhile for them to evolve their thinking about the purpose of the gift?

yes, I had to re-educated the benifactors that the kids are not widgets.  They are human beings with their own minds and thoughts.  What might seem right to you does not mean the dreamers see it the same way or even think about it the same way.  I had to train the sponsors and dreamers to consider other ways of getting to the same goal.  What a job.  I would not have traded this for the world.

That's all our time. On behalf of Jeffery and Tracy, thanks for joining us and thanks for reading.

In This Chat
Paul Schwartzman
Paul Schwartzman is a local reporter for The Washington Post.
Jeffery Norris
Jeffery Norris was one of the Seat Plasant 59. Ater dropping out of Prince George's Community College, spent some years selling drugs but says that's behind him now. He now plays keyboard and leads the choir at Little Rock Church of Christ in the District.
Tracy Proctor
Tracy Proctor officially was project coordinator for the Seat Pleasant Dreamers. In reality, the job called upon him to be surrogate father, social worker, fixer, tutor, bouncer, parole officer and chauffeur, among other roles.
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