Photo courtesy of Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post.

In 1988, a DC philanthropist promised a group of low-income 7th-graders in the Anacostia neighborhood that he would pay for their college educations. What’s happened to the kids since then shows that the presence of a caring adult can alter a child’s life trajectory.

A thought-provoking new documentary called Southeast 67 will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival this Friday. It traces the lives of some of the 67 kids “adopted” by Stewart W. Bainum, Sr., as part of the national I Have a Dream program. While it’s not a simple success story, the film suggests Bainum’s initiative ultimately helped many escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Bainum, a hotel and nursing home magnate who died last year, randomly selected one half of a class at Kramer Jr. High School (now Kramer Middle School) in Anacostia to be his beneficiaries.

He hired two people to mentor and help the kids with their schoolwork through high school, and pledged to pay their college tuition if they graduated by 2000.

By 1994, 72% of the “Dreamers” had graduated from high school. That was significant. The graduation rate for the half of the class not chosen for the program was only 27%.

But the idea behind the program was that students would go on to college right away, and few did. Only six of the 67 earned a BA on time, according to an article in the New York Times, and 36 never used any of the tuition money that was available to them.

Growing up amid a crack epidemic

It’s clear that designers of the program vastly underestimated the challenges facing kids in Anacostia at the time. It was the height of the District’s crack cocaine epidemic, and violence pervaded the Dreamers’ lives.

One of the two adults hired to mentor the Dreamers, Steve Bumbaugh, estimates that only 15 to 20 of the kids were abused at home or had parents who were crack addicts. But, he says in an oral history on the film website, “Every single Dreamer witnessed somebody being murdered. They were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war.”

Obviously, tutoring alone wasn’t going to be enough to ensure the success of kids living in such an environment. But Bumbaugh and his colleague, Phyllis Rumbarger, went way beyond tutoring—and even way beyond providing food, organizing basketball games, and rousing tardy students from bed, all of which they did.

Essentially, they gave many of the Dreamers the encouraging, reliable adult presence that was otherwise lacking in their lives. In some cases, they forced that presence on the kids. And as writer Paul Tough and others have detailed, research has shown that the presence of a caring adult in a child’s life can counteract the effects of toxic stress caused by growing up in poverty.

Still, it wasn’t enough to get many on the path to college immediately. One Dreamer in the film, Martece Gooden Yates, seemed to have it all together in high school. What no one knew—not even Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—was that her mother had become addicted to crack.

She couldn’t go away to college, she says, because she was afraid her mother would OD. She did enroll at the University of the District of Columbia, but she was already pregnant by then and soon dropped out.

Tenille Warren, who I’ve written about before, was a talented artist and seemed to have a promising future. But she wanted to make money to get away from an abusive mother, so she took a job at Safeway.

And Antwan Green was one of ten Dreamers who went off to the conservative all-white boarding school in Ohio that was Bainum’s alma mater. Green had no trouble making straight As there, but quit when an uproar broke out after a white girl invited him to a dance. He ended up dropping out of high school and dealing drugs.

Success can come later in life and extend to the next generation

You might judge these three, now in their late 30s, to be failures. But as the film makes clear, they’re anything but. Yates is still married to the father of the child she gave birth to after starting UDC, and she’s pursuing a nursing degree at Trinity University.

After Herculean efforts, Warren is now a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

And Antwan Green, after narrowly escaping a long-term prison sentence, has a GED, his own trash-hauling business, and a stable marriage. And it’s clear from both the film and his remarks at an invitation-only screening a couple of weeks ago that he’s at least as thoughtful and articulate as many college graduates.

So while a college degree is clearly important these days, it shouldn’t be the only measure of success. Even if it is, maybe you shouldn’t impose a time limit on it. In addition to Yates and Warren, two other Dreamers are currently in college, and a total of nine have graduated, according to the Times article.

More significant, perhaps, is what is happening in the next generation. Nineteen children of Dreamers are in college, three hold BAs, and two are in graduate school. The film shows Antwan Green’s college student son hunched over his books. Green predicts he’ll get a Ph.D.

In an oral history on the film’s website, Bumbaugh provides more texture for these statistics. In the past 10 years, he says, the Dreamers have been getting married, keeping the same phone numbers, staying at the same jobs—in short, building the kinds of stable lives their parents didn’t have, and passing the benefits on to their kids.

It’s impossible to know how the Dreamers’ lives would have unfolded if they hadn’t been chosen for the program. But, as Bumbaugh says, “All of these outcomes cannot be coincidental. They’re so radically different, unfortunately, from the kids who were not in the program.” For many of the Dreamers, he suggests, the program was able to help break a cycle of poverty going back many generations.

No doubt things would have gone even better for them if their environment had been safer and they’d had more access to things like “a goddamn doctor if they got sick,” as Bumbaugh says. They needed, he argues, more than “a cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be.”

But, as the life trajectories of many of the Dreamers show, cheerleaders—or at least, cheerleaders with the ability and dedication displayed by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—can make a huge difference. Ideally, parents serve as those cheerleaders. But many parents are too stressed by poverty themselves to perform that role.

The question is: how do we find thousands more people like Bumbaugh and Rumbarger, and provide them with the resources to help the many kids who need them?


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Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.