Go to College, 6th-Graders Told : $1.5 Million Pledged to Keep Children in School

Times Staff Writer

A wealthy San Marino woman traveled to two of Los Angeles' poorest and roughest neighborhoods Wednesday and promised $1.5 million of her family's money to 200 grade-school pupils if they would graduate from high school and go to college.

The would-be beneficiaries, two sixth-grade classes in South-Central Los Angeles, seemed uncertain of what to make of the elegant, gray-haired patron who came to their graduation ceremony with offers of counseling and tutoring, as well as scholarships.

Many of their parents also seemed unmoved at first. They sat stone-faced as the offers were described in English; many of the parents speak only Spanish.

But in the end, translations and explanations bridged much of the cultural divide, and most everyone seemed pleased.

"I have six children, and one of them at least will definitely go to college now," said Elvira Young, 37, who dropped out of high school herself many years ago and already has seen one of her children drop out.

The scholarships will be given under the auspices of "I Have a Dream," a private, nationwide program founded in New York in 1981 to reduce skyrocketing dropout rates among inner-city children.

San Marino resident Win Rhodes-Bea, 57, learned about the program from a "60 Minutes" television show episode, flew to New York to learn more about it and then decided to try the idea in Los Angeles, where 18.2% of all public high school students drop out before graduation.

She and the other family members, descendants of Max Whittier, an oilman who developed much of Beverly Hills, are footing the bill for the program at 1987 sixth-grade classes of Holmes Avenue Elementary School and 52nd Street Elementary School.

The $1.5 million will provide counseling, tutoring and field trips to help the children make it through high school, and $500-a-year scholarships to college or vocational schools after graduation.

Rhodes-Bea said she hopes her effort will expose the children "as much as possible to culture and the business world."

"A lot of these kids have never even been to the beach," she told reporters.

Surprise to All

The teachers at the schools learned of the scholarships at the same time the students did. Many rushed to their former pupils with wishes of congratulations and declarations of their good fortune.

The beneficiaries themselves had mixed reactions.

"It's OK," said Holmes' student Claudia Leverett, 12. "It's hard to think about something so far away--college."

But classmate Bernardo Carrillo, 11, said the scholarships will put "good pressure" on him to make it to college.

"It means you have to stay in school and not get into drugs and gangs," said Carrillo, who walks through housing projects to get to school each morning.

"There's a lot of shooting around here at night and sometimes I think maybe I'll be one of those guys with a gun. I'm trying to (avoid) that. I want to be a businessman, making deals, like with cars."

President Reagan, a strong supporter of the program, sent the children a telegram Wednesday. He told them that education is necessary for "clear thinking" and "success in life." "Mrs. Reagan and I are proud of you," the President said.

Dropout Rates

Citywide high school dropout rates in the Los Angeles school system vary by ethnic group and race: 24% for blacks, 16.5% for Latinos and 15.8% for whites. South-Central teachers estimate that the dropout rate for youngsters in that neighborhood approach 40%.

Carrillo's mother, Maria, 32, called the offer of scholarships "a shock."

"I'm going to do my best to see he goes to college," she said after watching her son graduate from Holmes Avenue. "I'm not going to let a chance like this go by."

But some family members were skeptical.

"I say this is a bunch of bull," said Gertrude Logan, 45, a waitress whose grandson graduated from the 52nd Street school. "The promise is fine, but are they going to keep it?"

New York industrialist Eugene Lang, 68, who came to Los Angeles to kick off the program, says he found similar skepticism when he began the effort in East Harlem in 1981. While giving a commencement speech to a group of sixth-graders, he spontaneously decided to offer them college scholarships if they graduated.

He hired a social worker who visited the children's homes, took them on field trips, got to know their families and intervened when there were problems. Lang also became close to many of the children. If one failed to show up at school, he or his workers called or visited the child's home to investigate. They provided tutoring and field trips, found the children "mentors" and kept close tabs on their progress.

Effects of Time

Of the 59 Harlem children who received Lang's pledge, eight moved away, and Lang says "one to three" probably will not graduate. One student received his degree while in jail, and another returned to school after dropping out because she was pregnant.

Word of Lang's gesture spread, and wealthy residents in other cities launched their own scholarship programs. The program now has 100 financial patrons who assist 4,000 children in 15 cities, with Los Angeles the latest addition.

Reagan has invited Lang to the White House, and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett awarded him an $80,000 grant for his "I Have a Dream" foundation. But Lang says he told Reagan he was not trying to "prove" the Reagan philosophy of replacing public assistance with private aide. In fact, Lang said, he believes government assistance to schools must expand.

But he says his program can do what government will never be able to accomplish: It can provide students with hope.

"No institution can give or reciprocate affection," he said. "No institution can be concerned about a child's dream. No institution can be a personal cheering section for a child. What we are doing, a system cannot do."

Expects It to Grow

Lang believes the program will quadruple in another year. He attributes the willingness of wealthy Americans to contribute to their wish to be "identified with success."

"We give people the opportunity to be significant, to fulfill the desire to contribute," he said.

Rhodes-Bea says she saw the program as "an opportunity for these kids to get out of the ghetto, an opportunity for cross-social-economic caring."

For many of the children's parents, it is a relief.

"I just can't believe it," said Beverly Harris, 38, whose daugher Danielle graduated from Holmes. "The one big worry I've always had is that I have four children, and the thought of trying to get them to college, and the expense, is just overwhelming."

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