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The Educators

Phyllis Rumbarger

I Have a Dream was the best job I’ve ever had. The kids were wonderful. And that kept you going. And most of the school staff, most of the parents, were all great. I was with the kids five-and-a-half years—some of them almost daily for four years. In education, you rarely have that.

The program was very idealistic; there was a high learning curve. Some of the learning curve had to do with how few educational services the kids got in the city. And then how very far behind they were—even those that were in the gifted classes and that were very bright, academically, they were not doing well. If you put them with another group in another environment, they wouldn’t have been the top. That was one of the biggest learning curves, and one of the biggest wish-I’d-done-differently kind of things. We would have put many more services for the top kids. When Steve came, we shifted, and he did a superb job. Because his academic skills were just outstanding and he was young and he could really relate to them.

But I was hired in the initial days to work with the kids academically at the bottom, because that was my specialty. So that’s what I did. I taught classes, working with the struggling learners. And sometimes it had nothing to do with a learning disability, or an inability to learn, it was they just hadn’t been exposed to what you need to know to be successful academically.

The program’s expectation was middle-class expectation: You go to school every day, and you work hard, and you do your homework, and you have a goal. And we were always—when I say "we," I mean Mr. Bainum, Steve, myself—we were always very clear. You don't have to go to college, but you do need to be able to support yourself. The fact that Mr. Bainum was a plumber, you know, we didn't care what, but you need to prepare yourself to do something.

Mr. Bainum's favorite word, that we just drummed into the kids was "perseverance." Don't give up. And actually, there's been a lot written about that, about the difference between people that make it—and I'm using that term very broadly—and those that don't is instant gratification versus persevering. And persistence. You've got to persist.

So, that was the hardest thing that we were trying to impart, but we were going against most of the culture of the neighborhood. It had nothing to do with race. It was just different. I'm stricken for words, because I don't want to characterize. It wasn't just an academic or a poverty problem or a danger problem. Some of it's the home life, but a lot of it's the neighborhood and the schools. We're talking about the worst of the worst schools; no learning was taking place. Part of the issue, which was really a shock to me, because I had never worked in that kind of a neighborhood before, was, why, at the age of 12 or 13, should you have a dream that you can go to college, when, in another half of your brain, you don't really expect to live past 16? And that's real. That's because their cousin has died. Their sister has died. And some of schools were violent. And so, you're not safe. And it's not the culture to stay in school. So, that was one of the hardest things. And almost everything ties to that.

As a side point, the peak in homicides in the District was ’88—that was when we were doing I Have a Dream. So, it was not a good time for the kids to be living there. Now is a piece of cake compared to that. Crack cocaine had come in and people didn’t know how to handle it. Meaning, law enforcement, social workers. And of course the school system was even worse than it is now. So we had lots of challenges. But one story that I love to tell, is I worked in Southeast for the Bainums for 6 years, essentially half-way through the Dreamers’ 7th grade until they graduated from high school. The staff had to park offsite in the first three years when we were at the junior high school. And you know, the little grandmothers would watch my car. I mean they’d watch everybody’s car, not just mine, but nothing ever happened; nothing. And then when I moved in-house for the foundation in Silver Spring, my car was stolen, in a paid, public garage in downtown Silver Spring.

We did a tremendous amount, educationally, more than many Dreamer classes did, getting in tutors and then helping some kids get their select placements, like at Duke Ellington School for the Arts for high school, and we had one girl who had a full ride to Holton. She got up every day, she left deep Southeast. And she graduated from Holton on time. Somebody had to bring her to an interview and get that. Steve was really good at all of that. Steve worked extremely well with the very bright girls. They didn't need me. They had mothers and grandmothers that were guiding them. And to talk to parents, you know and have parents understand the whole piece. And Mr. Bainum also genuinely liked the parents. And I think Mr. Bainum worked very hard to provide services for the kids that had struggled the most.  He was a champion of the underdog. He could talk to anybody. I mean, even if they didn't speak the same language, you know, he just wasn't one of those people that could only stay in, like, his little friendship group.

One of the things we thought of too late, at least in our mind, that Mr. Bainum was seriously considering was finding a place where the kids could live locally that was nurturing and then they would go to local public school. And he even had a couple chosen that could be like house parents, and he was looking at property near Eastern. We were going to target girls. And this would have been beginning of 10th grade, but it was too late for the ones that were struggling most. So we abandoned that the summer before 10th grade or maybe the spring. Anyway, then the boarding school idea came up. Mr. Bainum had that in his background, and they ultimately went to Mr. Bainum’s alma mater in Ohio.

And then, of course, the kids who went to boarding school—statistically, personally, financially—that was a huge piece of what we did, the last few years of high school. Ten went for at least one year. Those students did statistically better in social milestones as well as academically. Now, we didn't have standardized test scores to compare, but we compared pregnancies, we compared incarcerations, we compared who had been killed. All of them that were there their senior year graduated, so it was 100% graduation, if they were there their senior year. And I think something like six were there their senior year. Only one of the 10 did not graduate from high school. He was among the missing at that point.

I could give you all kinds of wonderful stories about wonderful things that happened and negative things that happened.  But in reality, it's the day-to-day, sloshing through the woods.

It turned out, I was more the mother figure kind of thing—you know, I'm white and live in the suburbs. I did more with the guys. Particularly, the guys that needed the extra academic help, because I was with them all the time. I did a lot of bringing the kids to my environment—and I was treated better in Anacostia than they were treated here. I mean, now, Montgomery County's changed, and we're much more ethnically diverse now. But there were not any black faces in the area. So, I always had to be very cautious that people knew they were with me. And they spent the night here, and we have farm land in Pennsylvania, and I'd take them up there. You know, we did things like that to show them other things you can do.

But then, it's interesting what they notice, things like one of the girls couldn't believe that I didn't have curtains that covered my windows.  Because, in their neighborhood, that's what you have. Yeah. And one of the boys couldn't believe how quiet it was, because they didn't hear any gunshots since they'd been here. And I'm worried that they didn't do their math homework.

Some of the Dreamers had never interacted with a white person that wasn't a police officer or social worker, let alone come out and spend the night at their house and do things like that. And when we had the summer programs at GW, they'd never been, you know, in a college campus; some of them never really got across the river very much in those days. And likewise, every time I would go to Anacostia, I mean, they took care of me. They would tell me which alleys I could drive down, and which carryouts I could go in. Yeah.  So, it was equally as good for me!

I think that…philosophically, I Have a Dream tried to do too much. I think it's very, very difficult to go from living and functioning in a neighborhood as dysfunctional as much of Anacostia was in those days to up here, you're all of the sudden, you have a college degree, and you're leading this middle-class life. But that, you know, it's stepping stones, and if we can go up one rung, like not having your first child until you're 18, and then having a steady job, like Derrick Newman, he's a master plumber, he's bought an apartment building in Anacostia. I mean, I'm not saying he's rich, but I'm saying, it's stability with dreams and goals. He was able to jump up to here, you know. But he had stable parents. He had a motivation.

We were all disappointed there were so many pregnancies. There's no question about that. Because, statistically, if you had a child young, your chances of graduating are just like: phfff. So that was the biggest disappointment. You know, why didn't you use birth control? Do you know what I'm saying? Sometimes, it was just too hard. Do you know how hard it is, at least 20 years ago, if you're a young woman, living in Anacostia, with very limited money and very limited education, to even get to the right kind of clinic to get protection? I mean, you can't just walk—and you can't hop in a car. You can't take just one bus. It's dreadfully difficult for things like that. Do you know how hard it is to sign up for WIC? Or how hard it is to get your kids into Head Start? I tried to help one girl get her kid in Head Start. I thought I'd lose my mind. And I can handle paperwork. It's just…very difficult. And you know, there were a lot of kids that were on the street trade, which is essentially running drugs. And they were recruited far before we even met them. That was the way it worked, you know?

In 9th, 10th grade, we poured almost all of our energies into getting them to graduate from high school, or with a GED. And we did not pour as much energy into college. I mean, we took them on the college tours, and we did all of that. But, the fact that we didn't keep staff people really working at the college level, once they got there, a lot of our kids dropped out the first year. I mean, I think then we really thought it was time for them to fly on their own kind of thing. But obviously, we were wrong. That's something I'd change. And as I referred to earlier, I would do much more with the gifted, the top kids. And I would definitely do wraparound services. I would try to do more internships and more getting people into workforce situations. We did a little of that, but I think that's something that we've learned.

In terms of impact on the foundation, when Mr. Bainum and I were sitting down, asking are we going to do another I Have a Dream class? We decided, No. Because we felt there were too many flaws in the program. What we did do in that conversation is we said, Well, then, let's form a boarding school scholarship program. And that's what we did. So looking at positives, in terms of impact on the foundation, it's just gigantic what the foundation went on and did for the next 15 years. And, I mean, thousands of kids are affected every year.

That program was a direct result of what we had done with the Dreamers. And the Dreamers that I would see, I would say, you know, what you did has impact—because you went to boarding school. You were gutsy enough to go. You persevered enough and were persistent enough to hang in there and graduate. You and your colleagues helped inspire this whole program to be built. And Pathways started with just a few hundred kids. In its height, it had, oh, like, 2,000 kids a year in boarding school. I mean, we're talking an astronomically big program. All because we tried it with these kids. Huge. Then a few years later, we started another whole program at the foundation which provided grants and support to help the schools get better. We also started Partners in Learning, which provides after-school tutoring for a gazillion kids in the Washington area every single year. And we started giving more and more—there was always a grants program at Commonweal. But, you know, it would be targeted slightly differently, because of the I Have a Dream experience. So, if you talk about success, all of that came out of I Have a Dream.