PHILADELPHIA -- In "The Gift of Education: How a Tuition Guarantee Program Saved the Lives of Inner City Youth," Norman Newberg describes how the chance-of-a-lifetime gift of free college tuition and the pressure to use it changed the lives of 112 seventh-grade students from one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods.
Newberg is a senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Newberg's book, which begins with the 1987 end-of-school-year assembly at which the "Belmont 112" learned of their good fortune, also tells the story of what it means to be poor and black in late 20th century America.
It was a time of unparalleled prosperity for many but social services were being drastically cut and African-Americans were being incarcerated in record numbers as drugs and violence plagued U.S. cities.
"The Belmont 112" was the first group of students in the "Say Yes" program. In 1987, at an assembly at the end of their six-grade year, the students and their parents found out they would have a free ride at the colleges of their choice if they were able to get accepted.
"We walked through the streets celebrating," one parent said. "My neighbor met us at the door and said, 'I seen it on the news' and everyone was ecstatic."
The program was founded and financed by George Weiss, a Connecticut money manager and utility stocks broker.
"This program couldn't have happened without George Weiss," Newberg said. "But he's done so much more than just provide money. He really wanted to do something to change these kids lives."
Of the original 112 students, 69 graduated from high school (62 with diplomas and seven passed GED exams), 50 had some form of post-secondary education, 14 earned certificates of technical training, 12 earned associates degrees and 20 earned bachelors degrees.
"Nineteen percent of our students got four-year degrees in a part of the city where only 6 percent of the population has a bachelors," Newberg said.
"We modeled the program somewhat after the 'I Have a Dream' program, but there was one big difference. We wanted the program to have a close connection to Penn and to use the university as a resource and to also introduce the students to higher education," said Newberg, who has served as executive director of "Say Yes" since its inception.
In addition to having the initial program and subsequent programs tied to a college or university, Newberg credits the program's "never say never" approach for its unusual success.
"We don't let go of these kids. One of our students went on to college but had some mental-health issues, stopped taking his medicine and was found walking on the side of a road. We got him the help he needed and he went on to earn his bachelor's degree," Newberg said.
The book also highlights how even a well-intentioned, and for the most part successful , program can have unforseen consequences.
"If you look at the numbers, students in our program tend to do very well compared to their peers, but there have been some students who instead of boosting them up, the program highlighted, at least in their mind, what they didn't have," Newberg said. "Our weakest students often were trapped by persistent poverty, compounded by social-emotional problems and learning disabilities."
Since its inception, 760 students have participated in Say Yes programs in Philadelphia; Hartford, Conn.; Cambridge, Mass.; and New York. Participants in every program have graduated from high school at double the rate of their peers.
The program has evolved over the years to reach out to children at an increasingly young age and to provide educational opportunities for parents and siblings.
The latest programs, announced at five New York schools in 2004, targeted youngsters entering kindergarten.