Dreamers’ success is no illusion

Vancouver’s I Have a Dream program helps disadvantaged students prepare for college

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter




(Some sponsored more than one project):

Richard and Mary Granger.

Brot and Mary Bishop.

Leslie Durst

Edward and Dollie Lynch.

Mason Nolan.

Don Campbell Family.

Ralph and Susan Gilbert.

Wes and Nancy Lematta.

George and Carolyn Propstra.

William and Catharine Byrd.

Gloria John.

Russ and Sarah Tennant.

Mertis Harmon.

Eva Hunt.

Kathi Wiley Gladson.

Candace Young.

Vancouver Rotary (Jan Asai, liaison).

I HAVE A DREAM of southwest washington Projects

Project 1, 1995: Fourth-graders at Washington Elementary.

Project 2, 1997: Fourth-graders at Hough Elementary.

Project 3, 1999: Third-graders at Harney Elementary.

Project 4, 2001: Second-graders at King Elementary.

On the Web:

Information about I Have a Dream of Southwest Washington is at: http://www.ihad-swwa.com/

Did you know?

Some Project 4 students will continue to be with I Have a Dream for up to six more years. They have up to two years to complete high school or begin college after their classmates graduate, followed by up to four years of higher education.

Students get up to half the cost of tuition at Washington State University at the time they graduate, minus their grants, scholarships and aid. (If one-half of WSU tuition is $4,900 and a Dreamer gets $3,000 in aid, then I Have a Dream pays $1,900.) This also assures full tuition coverage at the community-college level.

Five products of Vancouver’s I Have a Dream program gathered recently in a classroom at Hudson’s Bay High School to share experiences and compare perspectives.

It was an appropriate place for that sort of conversation, and not just because three members of the group are Bay graduates.

It’s the classroom of Lexie Hovee, who teaches at Hudson’s Bay.

Hovee was among the second group of students tapped by I Have a Dream, back when they were fourth-graders at Hough Elementary in 1997.

She was chatting a few days ago with 2011 Hudson’s Bay grads Shyquilia Hampton and Kiahna Elliott, Columbia River graduate Nick Mason and Fort Vancouver graduate Omar Alvarez. They were among about 100 second-graders at Martin Luther King Elementary who became Vancouver’s fourth and final Dreamer project in 2001.

They’re also among about 330 local students who have participated in I Have a Dream of Southwest Washington since 1995. The program is designed to help students from low-income neighborhoods prepare for, get into and graduate from college.

About 85 percent of the local Dreamers have graduated from high school, according to program officials, despite some significant hurdles. About half those grads have gone to higher education.

The four grads from the Class of 2011 who met in Hovee’s classroom represent a few of the issues many Dreamers deal with.

Shyquilia Hampton said she is the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

Omar Alvarez said he didn’t speak English when he arrived at King, but he found a way to learn.

“The teacher would play a video to teach the class some Spanish, and I did it in reverse,” said Alvarez, who will attend Clark College and has already earned his medical interpreter’s credentials.

Kiahna Elliott didn’t see college in her future.

“When I was young, I didn’t think I’d go to college,” Elliott said. Then she started taking classes like Advanced Placement science. “I knew I could pursue it,” said Elliott, who will study dental hygiene at Eastern Washington University.

Nick Mason, who will study biology at Gonzaga University, said he would have gone to college without I Have a Dream. But the program provided some opportunities — including a summer tour of Northwest colleges — that helped him plan his future.

“The opportunity to go to a college campus changes people’s perceptions of college immediately,” Hovee said.

“Knowing the demographic,” said Hovee, who teaches graphic design, “I know I Have a Dream gave a lot of kids a leg up. Not all, but the majority of them.”

The Dreamer Class of 2011 includes some distinguished graduates. With a 4.0 grade-point average, Mason was among the top 5 percent of grads honored at Columbia River’s commencement.

Nikita Shkadakov was the valedictorian at Battle Ground’s CAM High School.

Four of the Dreamer grads earned two-year degrees at Clark College while they were high school students.

But there were other ways to gauge success among this group of Dreamers, said Deanna Green, project coordinator. As a full-time employee who oversees the class and helps the students stay on track, Green knows the students have to deal with more than classroom challenges.

Green said one girl made five different bus connections to get from her job to her graduation last month.

Some students wound up on the street. Green said she’d ask how things were going, and a response often would be along the lines of: “I have a spot on the floor at a friend’s place, but I’m still in school.”

That wasn’t the sort of scenario people were thinking about in the 1990s when Mary Granger started the Vancouver affiliate of the New York City-based program. Granger died on Nov. 27, 2010, at the age of 78.

“The program would not exist without her dogged determination,” said Kathi Wiley Gladson, vice president of Vancouver’s I Have a Dream affiliate. “Thankfully, we are toward the end of the project, rather than the beginning. Mary was a fairly strong personality, so you knew exactly how she wanted this to play out, and we’re playing it out.”

Local sponsors pledged a total of $2.2 million to fund the four projects, although they’ve topped that figure over the years. They’ve funded programs and helped out on expenses. Sponsors have assisted individual Dreamers on things ranging from health problems to money for grads who couldn’t afford their caps and gowns.

Leslie Durst, longtime sponsor who became board president when Granger died, said the initial thought was investing money to fund scholarships. The promise of college assistance was seen as an incentive that would help children stay in school.

Organizers didn’t realize how much money would go into programs, activities and enrichment opportunities before the students reached high school. The program’s focus also widened.

“Technically, it’s an academically based program,” Gladson said. “More accurately, it’s a relationship-based program, matching caring adults with young people.”

Most of the sponsors are active participants, Durst said, doing far more than writing checks.

“Most of them are hands-on sponsors,” Durst said.

That’s one reason the organization hasn’t put together plans for a fifth Dreamer project in Vancouver.

“It takes energy,” Durst said.

“If other people came forward, we would undertake that conversation,” Durst said.

Gladson is lead sponsor for Project 4, one of seven people who pledged a total of $700,000 to help these students succeed.

“I wanted to be a part of their lives,” Gladson said. “I know their stories, and I am amazed by their resiliency and accomplishments and their abilities to rise above extreme difficulties — and do it well. I consider it an honor they have included me in their lives.”

In addition to the sponsors, dozens of mentors and volunteers have participated in Project 4.

“I got to job-shadow a pharmacist when I thought about going into pharmacy,” Elliott, the recent Fort Vancouver grad, said.

Fellow Dreamers also provide support.

“We keep pushing each other. It’s almost like a second family,” Alvarez said.

That includes older Dreamers. The students from the earlier classes have had plenty to share with those in Project 4.

“Yaser Carrasco, who was in Project 1, helped me write my college essay,” Elliott said.

Unfortunately, a college degree doesn’t always represent the express lane to success.

“I wish the economy were better,” Gladson said. But on the other hand, “This group has more going for it than most because of the challenges they’ve faced. They’re more marketable than those who haven’t had to develop the savvy and the coping skills. The hardships they’ve overcome will serve them quite well in the future.

“A Project 1 Dreamer lived in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people. His bedroom was a sheet hung behind an entertainment center in the living room. He rarely got a good night’s sleep,” Gladson said.

There was no support for academic development at home, let alone a place to study. “He had to listen in class and learn in class,” she said.

“Their tenacity is what will set them apart,” Gladson said. That can include a time when an employer is evaluating job candidates.

“If you’re looking at someone who has overcome what they have and seen success, if you can see what they have achieved without a lot of help, who would you want working for you?”