Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pieces of an educational dream

Twenty years ago, a stranger made a stunning offer to an entire class of sixth graders: A free college education. Some triumphed, others faltered.

Gallery: Some soared; others stumbled
Video: George Weiss' gift of free college education
One of them is a NASA aerospace engineer at Mission Control in Houston, helping to steer the International Space Station away from meteors and mulling his prospects as an astronaut.

One is a Massachusetts real estate investor creating decent housing for migrant workers.

One teaches health and nutrition to pregnant teens. Another makes indie films, and yet another cleans hotel rooms.

There is an ambulance driver among them, and a hair stylist, a clothing designer, a personal trainer, and a trade-school receptionist. One writes movie scripts.

Some live precariously on the margins, dealing drugs. At least two sit in prison: a murderer and a robber.

All are having an anniversary - one to celebrate, or rue, or forget.

Twenty years have passed since they and their sixth-grade classmates at Belmont Elementary School in West Philadelphia were catapulted out of the ranks of urban America's most unfortunate children. They suddenly became some of its luckiest. As they fidgeted in their graduation best and families cheered and wept, a wealthy stranger on the auditorium stage offered all 112 free college educations.

In their Mantua neighborhood, where futures were circumscribed by poverty and crack, broken homes and bullets, a child's odds of getting even a high school diploma were barely better than 1 in 4. But the class' new patron was promising to shepherd them through their secondary years, too, with a full-time staff to tutor, counsel, set up summer programs - whatever was necessary, whatever the cost, to change the taken-for-granted fate of inner-city minority youth.

George Weiss, a Connecticut money manager and University of Pennsylvania trustee, and his then-wife, Diane, named the project Say Yes to Education. They never imagined how many in the class would ultimately say no. Nor did they foresee the depth of dysfunction that would challenge their best intentions, and temper what they hoped would bloom into a national philanthrophic trend among the rich.

"You read about teenage pregnancy and drugs, but I certainly didn't relate it to these kids," said Weiss, who was sidelined with a bad back on June 19, 1987, and dispatched his wife to the Belmont graduation.

In tapes shot that day, the children looked "angelic," he said. "My expectation was, with my help, they'd get all A's. It's that upper-middle-class Jewish ethic, I guess."

The Belmont 112 - minus eight who died, all but one violently - are in their early 30s. Weiss, 64, estimates he spent more than $5 million by 2000, the deadline for completing their educations on his dime. In bean-counter terms, the return on his investment is this:

2120 bachelor's degrees. College graduates constitute nearly 19 percent of the class. A comparable group of children - the offspring of low-income African American parents without high school diplomas - were tracked in a national study beginning when they were eighth graders in the late 1980s. Just 10 percent finished college.

10 associate degrees.

14 vocational certificates.

65 high school diplomas, plus five GEDs. That is slightly above 62 percent, more than double what was considered the norm for their demographic group.

The numbers have been used by critics to argue that, while Say Yes might have been a noble experiment that changed lives, its results have not approached its cost.

Other flush benefactors, including Bill and Melinda Gates, have since focused on the education of impoverished minority children, too, but have aimed their money at systemic change, such as creating small high schools in inner cities. The Gates Foundation also offers scholarships through its Millennium Scholars project. The awards, however, are competitive - the case in most tuition-grant programs these days.

Academic merit was not a factor in Weiss' gift to the Belmont 112. The school was picked for its oppressive poverty and its proximity to Penn's Graduate School of Education, which, along with the Philadelphia School District, made the selection for him. The sixth graders were singled out because the philanthropist Eugene Lang, the granddaddy of tuition giveaways and Weiss' inspiration, had started his famed "I Have a Dream" project with an impulsive promise to sixth graders in Harlem in 1981.

For Weiss, though, the randomness backfired almost immediately. The day before the Say Yes launch, he learned that the class he was about to anoint had 44 special-education students. Several others had been "socially promoted" above their grade levels by a principal eager to get them in on the bonanza.

They should be excluded, someone suggested. Weiss refused.

"If we had," he said, "some of the kids who we really care about today probably wouldn't have made the cut."

Chances are, Jarmaine Ollivierre would have been out. Hyperactive, labeled special-ed at Belmont, he earned degrees in aerospace engineering and physics and landed at Johnson Space Center.

Among the social promotions was David Sims, a child of MOVE who started school at age 10. He got his bachelor's at the University of Hartford and his master's in education at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., where he is a real estate investor.

Weiss still is adopting classes in the same way, no child left out.

There are eight more Say Yes groups, totaling 630 additional students, in Philadelphia, New York, Hartford and Cambridge, Mass. Homebuilder Bob Toll and wife Jane stepped up to sponsor one at Harrity Elementary. But Weiss covers the rest of the tab, which already has exceeded $30 million.

In many ways, the Belmont pioneers mentored him. He has reached out to subsequent classes earlier, some as early as kindergarten and Head Start, and has included their siblings and even their parents in some of his offers.

As those groups begin to reach adulthood, higher rates of graduation are emerging: 23 percent from college, 75 percent from high school.

But statistics that carry so much weight in the outside world mean little inside the Belmont circle. There, the measures are different.

Paying it forward

Her class "might not have been a complete success based on numbers," said Carmen James. "But it was a success in so many other ways."

At 31, James still is not the social services provider she wants to be. Pregnancy and her mother's death derailed her in her freshman year at Delaware State University. (Thirty of the 45 Belmont girls became teen mothers.) She tried again later, at La Salle University and then at Peirce College, graduating with an associate degree.

Weiss paid the freight, as he did with many others whose journey into higher education took a pinball path.

Today, James works as a customer-service consultant for Verizon and owns her home in Southwest Philadelphia. She is a single parent of four, and so intent on giving them a solid academic foundation that she enrolled her oldest daughter in the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Charter School in North Philadelphia.

In that long bus trip across the city is some of the unmeasured success of Say Yes.

Like others of her peers, James has thought a lot lately about what she owes.

"I don't think it's an obligation" to Weiss, she said. "I think it's a responsibility to do the right thing . . . to make it better for someone else."

Majovie Bland has come to the same conclusion. He had wanted to be a stockbroker like his mentor and, in five years at the University of Hartford, got a bachelor's in economics and finance.

Dead-end job searches brought him back to Philadelphia. His devotion to his younger brother, a quadriplegic after an accidental shooting in 2002, has kept Bland here. At 32, he is driving an ambulance and, he says, reveling in the newfound joy of "helping people."

Bland, James and six others have formed the Belmont 112 Alumni Association, dedicated to paying it forward.

They've already volunteered to mentor students at what is now the Belmont Charter School. But their long-term vision is a community development corporation that would serve the still-crushing needs of the neighborhood where they grew up.

Although they already have a motto - "Building community, one family at a time" - their dreamed-of nonprofit is "very much a work in progress," Bland said.

The pace picked up this weekend, as the fledgling Alumni Association made a pitch for volunteers and donors at the Say Yes 20th anniversary reunion. More than 200 people representing all the classes from here to Cambridge - and as many as 50 of the Belmont 112 - were expected during the two-day affair, beginning Friday night at the Sheraton University City and closing at Belmont Charter yesterday.

Weiss' money could get the community project rolling. But Bland isn't looking for more from him.

"We don't want to leave everything on George Weiss," he said. "It's time for us to pick up and carry the ball, to do for our community and do for our people.

"It's our time to shine."

It's about family

No matter how you define rich - dollars, passions, fulfillments - George Weiss is more so than ever.

His business has grown from the management of mostly utility stocks into essentially a hedge fund for institutional and professional investors, with a staff of 144 in Hartford and New York City.

He has developed interests as far-flung as the plight of Ethiopian Jews - offering 150 children help with their educations when he visited Israel last year - and competitive martial arts. He has fifth-degree black belts in Tae Kwon Do and KiToshaKai and medaled three times (two golds, one bronze) at the 2003 World Cup in Mexico City.

Twice divorced, he was married again last weekend in Miami, to a Mexican American businesswoman who is studying interior design. One of his two daughters.made him a grandfather on Thursday.

They are but a fraction of what Weiss calls "family."

He knows where about 70 of the Belmont 112 are today. In the lives of half of those, he remains a fixture. He attends their weddings, gives them jobs, shares stock tips, laughs with them over dinner, visits them in jail.

"It's about love and it's about caring - you can't quantify that," Weiss said. "It's really evolved into a very beautiful family that supports each other. I'm not saying it isn't dysfunctional in parts, because it is, but. . ." He doesn't finish the sentence.

"I love these kids."

In the case of eight, to death.

There is only one photo on his desk in the corner office that he commands 20 floors above Park Avenue. The frame is positioned so his gaze is never far from Walter Brown, smiling in cap and gown at an eighth-grade graduation.

Among the Belmont 112, he was one of Weiss' favorites, and one of its classically troubled. Unable to get along with his mother, Brown was barely into adolescence when he wound up in a group home. Weiss tried to fill the void in the boy's life. He invited him to his Hartford house, took him to Penn football games.

Other forces won out. In January 1990, at age 15, Brown died in the crash of a stolen car.

"I cried, the first time I cried since the second grade," Weiss said. "He reached a part of me. It's a terrible price to pay, but he made me a better human being. I became more in touch with my feelings."

The latest Belmont funeral was Zengo Daigre's, two years ago.

He and his twin, Zeno, were among Say Yes' triumphs. They were smart and ambitious, and Weiss gave them internships at his company while they attended the University of Hartford.

Back home after getting their degrees, they gravitated to the underside of the old neighborhood. In April 2005, as they sat in a bar at 59th and Callowhill Streets, an argument broke out. Zengo was dead, shot in the temple and stomach.

As he has done too many times, Weiss gave the eulogy. Soon afterward, Zeno was back in Hartford, working for his company.

"I look back now. . ."

The West Philadelphia streets have long bedeviled Weiss. By the time most of the class had reached high school, at least 17 boys were known to be dealing drugs. One weekend Weiss drove around Mantua with Randall Sims, his Say Yes coordinator, and confronted them.

Jeremy Summers was on one of those corners, and couldn't be talked off. But a week before his high school graduation, police stopped the car in which he was riding with another student and found drug paraphernalia. He spent three days in jail - finally terrified enough to listen.

He gave Delaware State a try. And washed out. Weiss and Sims kept pushing until he regrouped at Community College of Philadelphia, where he got an associate degree in hotel and restaurant management.

Now 33, Summers works three jobs, catering and staging events. He's thinking of paying his own way to Temple University for a B.A.

"Without Say Yes, I probably would be dead or in jail," he said. "I think of Mr. Weiss every day."

There are others who would rather not. Invited to the reunion, some flatly refused.

"For some of these kids, George Weiss just reminds them that they're a failure," Sims said. "They were offered a free education and didn't take advantage of it. That albatross will remain around their necks for the rest of their lives."

No one could be harder on Carol Jackson than Carol Jackson.

At 32, she is a grandmother, living in a Section Eight-subsidized rowhouse with her four children, ages 17 to 1. She gets by on some public assistance and part-time jobs as a nurse's aide. Her oldest son, Rio, has a 1-year-old as well.

She grew up motherless and had her first baby at 14. But she graduated from high school - something she doubts would have happened without Say Yes - and took classes at Peirce. Unable to pass math, she did not get an associate degree.

Other Belmont students had it worse, she says, and managed to get at least that.

"If they made it, everybody should have," she said. "I look back now and I wish I had taken advantage of it."

So Jackson puts the heat on her teenage sons to finish high school and make lives for themselves that are better than hers.

Jackson was looking forward to attending the reunion, grateful for what she got.

"And I want to see people," she said, "and congratulate them."


For more articles, a slideshow, and student profiles, go to http://go.philly.com/belmont112.
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