An impulsive move on the part of one visionary man sparked a national movement to positively impact the lives of children in low-income communities from coast to coast...
In 1981, businessman Eugene M. Lang returned to P.S. 121, the elementary school he had attended in East Harlem 50 years earlier, to address a class of graduating sixth graders. He intended to tell the students, "Work hard and you'll succeed." But on the way to the podium, the school principal told Lang that three-quarters of the school's students would probably never finish high school, prompting Lang to make an impromptu change to his speech: he promised college tuition to every sixth grader who stayed in high school and graduated. Lang told the class about witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington. He urged the students to dream their own dreams, and promised to do all that he could to help them achieve their goals.
As he got to know his "Dreamers," Lang realized they needed more help than he could give all 61 of them on his own. He hired a full-time Program Coordinator, Johnny Rivera, and enlisted the support of a local community-based organization to provide services and support to the children through high school graduation. At the same time, he maintained close personal relationships with all the Dreamers.
By August of 1985, all of Lang's Dreamers were still in school. He began responding to news media inquiries in the hope that others would be inspired to replicate what he had done. It worked. A front-page story in The New York Times and a segment on 60 Minutes led to widespread national attention. Thousands of inquiries began pouring in, and in 1986, Lang formed the national "I Have A Dream" Foundation to help launch a new generation of "I Have A Dream" Programs.
Since then, almost 200 "I Have A Dream" programs have operated in 27 states, Washington, D.C., and New Zealand, together serving over 15,000 Dreamers. "I Have A Dream" has also freely shared its model with others -- individuals, corporations, church and community groups, and government agencies -- to generate other educational support programs that help many more children who lack a clear pathway to college.
And Lang's original 61 Dreamers? Of the 54 who remain in contact with the organization, more than 90% have earned their high school diplomas or GED certificates; and 60% have pursued higher education. The Dreamers have received degrees from Bard College, Barnard College, Swarthmore College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, CUNY Hunter, and other schools. Almost all of the P.S. 121 Dreamers hold fulfilling jobs, and those who are now parents themselves vow that their children will go to college.
The P.S. 121 Dreamers in 1981.
June 25, 1981
The "I Have A Dream" program is born when Eugene M. Lang promises the sixth graders of P.S. 121 in East Harlem that he will guarantee their college tuition if they graduate from high school. He then sets about creating a comprehensive program to ensure that his Dreamers get there.
The first "I Have A Dream" programs to launch outside of New York City get their start in Los Angeles, CA; Hartford, CT; Washington, DC; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Kansas City, MO; St. Louis, MO; Cleveland, OH; and Dallas, TX.
"I Have A Dream" expands to inner-city public housing developments with the support of President Bill Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley. The first housing-based "I Have A Dream" program is formed at the Chelsea-Elliott Houses in New York City.
"I Have A Dream" partners with AmeriCorps, the national network of programs that engages Americans in intensive service to meet critical needs in communities throughout the nation. 115 AmeriCorps members serve as mentors to Dreamers in "I Have A Dream" affiliates across the country.
Eugene M. Lang receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.
President Bill Clinton unveils the High Hopes for College program, designed to encourage colleges and universities to take a leadership role in replicating the model that "I Have A Dream" pioneered 17 years earlier. This program is renamed and passed as GEAR UP.
The first national Dreamer Service Day is organized to rally Dreamers across the nation in a day of giving back, and focuses on the theme, "Community Revitalization."
"I Have A Dream" celebrates its 25th Anniversary at The Rainbow Room in New York City, where Eugene M. Lang receives an award for Lifetime Achievement. Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Donna Shalala, and Harris Wofford are Honorary Chairs, and Mike Wallace is the host. The celebration also includes a national conference at Teachers College, Columbia University, attended by over 125 Sponsors, Executive Directors, Program Directors, and other staff.
"I Have A Dream" prepares to launch an ambitious new plan to reach significantly more youth and communities across the nation.