Who will support the dreams of the next generation? Who will lay out a vision of success, one that all too many youngsters are lacking in their home lives?
Those are the questions that arise from a recent 20th anniversary celebration for Southwest Washington’s “I Have a Dream” program. Starting in 1995, local leaders adopted four classes of elementary school children from low-income areas throughout the area, providing financial support, volunteer hours and — more important in many cases — a reason for the students to dream. “It opened a door for me,” said Jean Powell, whose fourth-grade class at Harney Elementary was adopted in 1999 and who recently graduated from Washington State University Vancouver. “I didn’t think about college. It’s not that I couldn’t, but it wasn’t talked about.”
The numbers point out the success of I Have a Dream. Among 330 local students in the project that promised to assist with college expenses down the road, organizers say 89 percent went on to graduate high school on time — a far greater percentage than the national average. Of those who finished high school, two-thirds went on to college, vocational training, or apprenticeships. Along the way, students received support that extended beyond paying for higher education. Sponsors “didn’t just write checks. They were at the pizza parties and field trips,” noted Jan Asai from the Rotary Club of Vancouver, which helped sponsor the fourth stage of the project.
While the benefits of the I Have a Dream program are clear, the extent of the need remains disturbing. As a recent article from Columbian reporter Tom Vogt detailed, the first class adopted by the local program was a group of fourth-graders from Washington Elementary in 1995. By the time that class became seniors in high school, 25 of the 60 students had left home; 15 of them were on their own during their last two years of high school.
For children who come from supportive families — or for parents who provide such stability — the depth of the issue is difficult to fathom, and many point to a perceived decline in the American family as the primary cause. As The New York Times wrote in 2013: “The old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America — but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite.” That trend appears to be reversing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of births to unmarried women climbed quickly through the decades leading up to 2008, but it has declined incrementally since then. In addition, studies have shown that modern parents spend more time with their children and are more engaged than those from previous generations.
Amid all the data, indications are that economic security and economic opportunity are the best factors in determining which students will be able to live out the traditional notion of success.
Those, however, are averages, and averages don’t speak to the individual needs of children mired in dysfunctional families or stifling poverty. That is where programs such as I Have a Dream can play a crucial role. Locally, a total of 17 sponsors contributed more than $2.2 million to the four projects over the past 20 years. More important, they provided a vision of what a successful future can look like. As volunteer and sponsor Kathi Wiley Gladson said: “The public thinks it’s an academic program. The work that’s more important isn’t so easily measured.”
Which brings us back to the original question: Who will support the dreams of the next generation?