The I Have a Dream Foundation, a national organization dedicated to helping students from low-income families graduate from high school and attend college, is breaking a cycle of poverty in the United States, the organization’s president and CEO said in an interview Wednesday.
Donna Lawrence, from the main IHAD office in New York City, was in the Wood River Valley on Wednesday to visit the two-year-old I Have a Dream Foundation program at Alturas Elementary School in Hailey.
Lawrence said she has worked in nonprofit organizations for most of her career but spent much of that time reading reports, writing grant applications and doing other office work. But when she was appointed recently as national IHAD president and CEO, she decided to get out of the office and to see what was really going on.
“I decided the first thing I would do is go on a listening tour of all of our 36 programs across the United States,” she said. “When I decided to do this listening tour, I really didn’t know what I would see, but I have been so impressed with everything I’ve seen.”
Lawrence says the organization has a good track record. Since being formed in 1981, the foundation has helped 16,000 students, with the vast majority being from low-income families. Of the low-income students who were Dreamers, Lawrence said 90 percent have graduated from high school and 67 percent of those have gone on to college.
She said the number of low-income students not enrolled in the program who graduate from high school is closer to 60 percent.
In addition to helping individual students improve their lives, the I Have a Dream Foundation is “breaking the cycle of poverty,” thus providing a positive societal effect. She explained that Successful Dreamers earn more money when they become adults, enabling them to lift their families from poverty.
“Kids who graduate from high school earn over $250,000 in their lifetimes more than kids who don’t graduate,” she said, adding that those who graduate from college earn an average of $2.8 million more than non-high school grads over the course of their lives.
The local I Have A Dream program was founded in 2013 by Ken Lewis, a former shipping executive and himself a former president of the national IHAD organization. Lewis started several I Have a Dream Foundation programs in Portland, Ore., before bringing his philanthropy to the Wood River Valley in 2012, when work was started to form an organization here.
In 2013, the newly formed Idaho I Have a Dream Foundation, the only one in the state, chose the entire third-grade class at Woodside Elementary School in Hailey to be its Dreamers, promising to help them graduate from high school and two years’ worth of scholarship to attend a community college.
Things changed in the Blaine County School District a year later. Woodside Elementary School was designated as a magnet school for studies only in the district’s Dual Immersion Program, in which students are taught both in English and in Spanish, and the school’s name was changed to Alturas Elementary School.
The change also affected the makeup of the Foundation’s Dreamer class, since the majority was already enrolled in Dual Immersion but others were not. Those enrolled in DI stayed at Alturas, while those not were transferred to another elementary school.
Devan Annan, the foundation’s project coordinator, said the original group of 48 Dreamers now stands at 46 because two of the students left the district. Of the 46 students remaining, 30 still attend Alturas Elementary, six are enrolled at Bellevue Elementary School and eight are at Hailey Elementary School. Two others are this year enrolled at Syringa Mountain School, Blaine County’s new state-funded charter school.
Regardless of the school they attend, the 46 kids are still the Idaho I Have a Dream Foundation’s Dreamers and next year they will all be sixth-graders, Lewis said. Most of them will be reunited at Wood River Middle School.
Lewis said he intends that the first group of Dreamers set an example of how the program can work. All the Dreamers are offered an after-school program to help them with their studies, and they have mentors to help them deal with home or societal pressures.
While not all of the local Dreamers come from low-income families, Lewis said 70 percent of them qualify for the school district’s free or reduced-price lunch program.