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Intergenerational Poverty Comes to a Halt Thanks to Community-Wide Vision

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What do you consider a stable lifestyle? Is it a job, a roof over your head and a full belly? For families living in outer East Portland, achieving seemingly simple goals may be out of reach. Low-income families are constantly battling the challenges that come with poverty: family involvement in the justice system, foster care, food insecurity, and homelessness. Students as young as five, are wondering where they will get their next meal or where they will sleep at night, not if they will get their math homework done or if they'll pass the next vocabulary test.

Imagine if an entire community came together to break down barriers for these students so they were simply able to learn. What if we could create an environment where generations of students from low-income communities were empowered to graduate from high school, pursue post-secondary education and become economically independent? Can providing students from low-income communities with all the right tools and resources ensure their success?

Believe it or not, this experiment has been happening for 25 years, and it's working.

"I Have a Dream" Oregon has taken on what seems like the impossible task in giving hundreds of students everything they need to graduate high school, attend college, and gain economic independence. The first-in-the-nation Dreamer school's goal is for 100 percent of its students to earn a diploma, and 80 percent to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate. They will follow these students from PreK through college with whatever it takes to ensure their success.

The Dreamer School at Alder Elementary sits in the heart of Portland's Rockwood neighborhood, where approximately 20 percent of students are homeless, 100 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch, and more than 60 percent are English language learners.

This lofty mission becomes possible with the donations and support from partnering organizations, institutions and businesses bound as one to counter risks faced by low-income students to promote family stability and academic success.

What is "I Have a Dream" Oregon?

"I Have a Dream" Oregon works to eliminate obstacles outside the classroom so there are fewer distractions in the classroom. Teachers are able to teach and students are able to learn.

Historically, donors would adopt a cohort of 3rd grade students and invest in everything they may need, from schools supplies to college financial aid. But the model wasn't sustainable or systemic in spurring student success beyond those fortunate classrooms of students, and "I Have a Dream" sought to expand to an entire school for greater community-wide effects.

In 2010, Alder Elementary was adopted as the first Dreamer School, where every student is a Dreamer and provided with whatever it takes to succeed, such as mentors, tutoring, after-school programs, college and workplace visits, and more.

"The teachers and administrators at Alder Elementary have an unparalleled passion for our students and their well-being. It is the lack of resources outside of the classroom that can make academic success difficult," said Rob Stewart, Principal at Alder Elementary School.

Statistics show people achieving a bachelor's degree earn twice as much as those with no secondary education, so from the day students start Kindergarten; they're coached to excel and expand their belief in their own ability to attend college. Past Dreamer classes have graduated at two to three times higher rate than their low-income peers.

It Takes a Community Effort to Make Dreams Come True

Thanks to "I Have a Dream" Oregon, Alder Elementary Dreamers and their families have direct access to more than 70 public and private organizations that do whatever it takes to create stability. Volunteers, donations and free services help disadvantaged learners and their families overcome challenges outside the classroom. Last year volunteers and supporters donated 6,200 hours and $1.75 million to "I Have a Dream" Oregon.

For example, Kurt Kroon was paired with Dreamer Marcus in 2012 through a partnership
with an organization called Family of Friends. Marcus lived in a rough apartment complex, and had to deal with stressful home life issues that eventually landed him in a school for
students with behavioral challenges.

"The Marcus I knew outside the classroom blew me away; he was warm, friendly and very sharp," said Kroon. 
"I knew he didn't belong there. So we made a plan to get him back to mainstream as soon as possible."

Less than a year later, Marcus proved to himself and his teachers that he could succeed in school. He was transitioned back to a mainstream class and soon returned to his original school. To celebrate, Kroon gave him the experience of a lifetime by taking him to a G6 Airpark.

"Even this one celebratory experience could in some small way contribute to Marcus' belief in his abilities," said Kroon. "I am honored to watch this amazing person mature and to be that consistent, positive force in his life."

Donations - The Fuel to Alder Elementary Student Success

Donations by businesses such as Lightspeed Technologies are another example of community generosity aimed to help students at Alder Elementary. The company develops audio systems for classrooms that enable every student to clearly hear their teacher and digital content. Once a year, Lightspeed Technologies employees donate an entire system to a charity of their choice. In 2014, the team came together to donate five systems to Alder. Once word got out about the cause to the entire staff, Lightspeed outfitted the entire school donating an additional 14 systems.

"Leaders at Lightspeed and all our donors have big hearts. Once people get involved and see what we're doing they fall in love and want to be part of it. It snowballs," smiled Mihalko. "Companies, nonprofits, and colleges are realizing these students are our future leaders and they want to help."

Additionally, every year a local college or university sponsors each grade level. In the fall, school officials visit classrooms and talk to students about what their college has to offer. In the spring, the entire class goes on a field trip to campus so they're able to get a firsthand view of secondary education and what campus life is like. By the end of a student's elementary education they will have been to six college campuses.

"Many of the students' parents have not finished high school, let alone visited a college campus. These trips give Dreamers so much exposure to a life outside of poverty," explained Mihalko.

It's part of "I Have a Dream" college-to-career pipeline starting in Kindergarten. The idea is to "plant the seed" early on that Alder students are college bound. No matter how far away it seems, students take pride in, and identify themselves by, their graduation year. For example, kindergarteners show ownership in being the college class of 2032.

Support Equals Success

The Dreamer School model is working. Alder Elementary is the fastest improving school in the Reynolds School District. The number of Dreamers achieving proficiency in 3rd grade doubled and the number of 4th grade Dreamers achieving math proficiency tripled last year. Dreamers also demonstrated the No. 1 rate of growth in math and the No. 2 rate of growth in reading among all middle and elementary schools in the Reynolds School District.

So what happens when Dreamers leave the comfort of Alder Elementary and are launched into the world of middle and high school? To ensure the highest success rate possible, the foundation instills the motto, "Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer." Students are given opportunities, resources, and mentorship through their first two years of post-secondary education.

Since 1990 about 800 Oregon students have the honor of calling themselves a Dreamer, and with the pipeline of students coming through Alder Elementary that number is expected to exponentially climb.

Success can be seen in the numbers, and schools across the nation who are working to replicate the model built within Alder Elementary.

"It's everyday people taking a step back to help those who need it most. It's making an impact on not only students at Alder Elementary, but the entire community as well," said Mihalko. "If we're going to make sure these kids graduate, move onto college, and get careers, we're going to have to work together."

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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