Program Profile: I Have a Dream Foundation

February 10, 2016
By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant

Early awareness interventions often happen at the state and local level; the I Have a Dream Foundation (IHDF) is different. This inclusive program works with a variety of small cohorts over a long period of time, and is nationally directed but has affiliates across the United States and New Zealand.  With a mission statement of providing “long-term support to children and youth living in under-resourced communities,” IHDF begins very early, in third grade, by selecting a specific class, public housing age group, or school and providing services to every student in that group. Services are provided from the time of inception all the way through college –and beyond – and include academic support, mentorship, and, in every cohort, tuition assistance. Following the annual Dreamer Conference of 2015, I spoke with Maritza Guzmán, Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships.

More than 35 years ago, IHDF began when Eugene Lang was invited back to his elementary school to speak to a graduating class of sixth graders. He was moved by meeting them, and wanted to inspire them to succeed in the future, so he promised to college tuition to every student who graduated high school. Many of those children did enroll in college, and this program was born. More than 90% of the original class of Dreamers graduated high school, and about 70% went on to higher education. Currently operating 33 programs with 16 affiliate partners, IHDF identifies a community that can benefit from these wraparound services, and then work with funders to provide the tuition support and other program costs. Guzmán explained their inclusive approach: “The IHDF program works with entire classrooms, schools, or housing developments; students living in the particular catchment area for an IHDF program are invited to participate and become Dreamers.” Historically, one funder – group or individual – will cover a specific cohort, though they do additional fundraising. 

Because of Lang’s mission, maintaining relationships with students throughout the entirety of their school career is important. Beginning in third grade, students receive wraparound services, and the intensity and level of interaction changes as they get older. Through Saturday Academies that prepare students for school readiness, summer programs that promote character development and academic skills, and social activities with the cohort, IHDF develops curriculum that they hope promotes overall socioemotional health and growth. Individual tutoring and mentoring is available to all students in a cohort, which helps prepare them to succeed and grow. As their educational needs increase, the support students receive increases, including more help in applying to colleges, submitting financial paperwork, and finding scholarships. 

Curriculum development is flexible across the various communities with IHDF programming, but they share the same core tenets. Long-term engagement, an outcomes focus, tuition assistance, low-income participants, inclusive programming, a consistent adult relationship, family engagement, and service learning contribute to the overarching goals at every site are socioemotional health and academic achievement. Participating students are called “Dreamers” and the curriculum encourages the Dreamers to bond and grow together. Each year there are college trips, where Dreamers visit universities near their community, and there is also an annual Dreamer Conference that Dreamers may apply to. The process for Dreamer Conference attendance is similar to the college application process; so that students can gain those skills well before the actual college application process begins. Because services are offered so long and at fairly intense levels, cohorts grow close, and the alumni network is strong. Alumni are often asked to come speak to classrooms about what life is like as a first-generation college student, and Dreamers can identify with alumni because they’ve gone through similar processes.

Though academic and emotional growths are the leading drivers of most services, IHDF is most notable for its tuition assistance component. Guzmán informed me that the tuition support varies by location, but every cohort must offer tuition assistance. Every Dreamer pursuing postsecondary education is eligible for the tuition support. It is a last-dollar support, which is why IHDF helps with FAFSA and outside scholarship applications. Since its creation, more than 16,000 students have participated nationwide. Of that, about 90% have graduated high school. Roughly 67% of high school graduate Dreamers have gone on to enroll in college. The IHDF website profiles their many successful alumni, and the program celebrates a long-term, inclusive strategy that they believe is what inspires many Dreamers to succeed.

Marvin Cabrera was formerly a Program Director in one of the New York sites, and has recently become a National staffer as the Director of Alumni Networks and Partnerships. He spoke with great passion for the program, and explained to me that for him – and for many others – working at IHDF “is not a job; it’s a lifetime commitment. Because it’s about whole community development,” Marvin explained that the strong relationships inspire both Dreamers and program staff, which helps to create an atmosphere of respect, encouragement, and growth. Cabrera can only speak for his cohort, but research corroborates some of his passion: New York, Chicago, and Portland, Dreamer high school graduation rates were at least 10 percentage points higher than their non-Dreamer peers. Four different studies through the nineties found “exceptionally high rates of college attendance” among Dreamers. Though the specific programs vary based on location, the similar program structure and tuition assistance model show success across the different affiliates and communities.

"I Have a Dream" Foundation has a unique approach to early awareness, and its inclusive cohort model has led to an impact that spans broader than academic achievement. The staff and students speak highly of this program, and the model provides an interesting look into how wraparound services can help to increase college enrollment.

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