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The Gift

George Weiss gave 112 West Philadelphia students a chance to go to college. He says he's gotten much more in return.
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BY SUSAN LONKEVICH
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IN THE SUMMER OF 1996, Dr. Norman Newberg sat in his office at Penn's Graduate School of Education, interviewing a broad-shouldered young man from West Philadelphia.
   "I like literature," the student said when asked what interested him most at school. "I don't sell those books at the end of the semester."
   He then pointed to a print of William Blake's lithograph, "Elohim Creating Adam," hanging on Newberg's wall. "That guy up there. I read his stuff. I also read that poem, you know, Tintern Abbey? I liked that. I also read some stuff by that guy who was doing dope you know, that guy who was a dope-head."
   "You mean Coleridge?"
   "Yeah, that guy -- Ancient Mariner."
   Several things made this conversation remarkable: Diagnosed with a learning disability, the student had been in a special-education program until his junior year of high school. He was separated in infancy from his biological mother, a drug addict. His step-mother, who raised him, had few financial resources but was determined that he would get an education. And because of his own motivation and the intervention of a multimillion-dollar program called Say Yes to Education -- founded 10 years ago by George and Diane Weiss -- he is now attending the University of Hartford.
   Since Say Yes began, Newberg, the foundation's executive director, and the Weisses have often been touched by the insights or talents of such students, whom a flawed educational and social system typically would have left behind. "Most of these kids needed second, third, fourth, fifth chances," says George Weiss, W'65, "and society doesn't give these kids these kinds of chances." But he did. In 1987, Weiss and his then-wife, Diane, announced they would sponsor a class of 112 graduating sixth-graders at Belmont Elementary School in one of West Philadelphia's most threadbare pockets. Working in collaboration with Penn, the Philadelphia Public School District, and the students' families, they agreed to provide counseling and other services -- and then pay for the children's post-secondary education if they could get into college or trade school. Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/16/97