NEW YORK — Thanks to Eugene Lang's impulsive promise at a grade-school graduation, 90% of the Class of 1981 at East Harlem's P.S. 121 now has graduated from high school.
Half have gone on to Bard, Swarthmore, Barnard and other universities, spurred by the millionaire's vow to pay the college tuition of each of the 61 students if they got high school diplomas. And around the country, others have copied Lang's largess.
Lang doesn't take credit for the inroads made by his young proteges. Their own hard work and dedication brought them this far, he says. But like a proud grandfather, he brags about what they have accomplished.
"I fully expect two-thirds of the class to complete at least two years of college," he says.
In 1981, he said: "I asked the principal of the school how many of these kids would go to college, and he told me maybe one."
The avuncular Lang wasn't always so upbeat. At a 1985 lunch with Harlem social worker Dorothy Stoneman, Lang recalls bemoaning what he saw as a lack of progress: smart-aleck truants, apathetic parents, uninterested students.
"You don't know how to look," Stoneman interrupted. "Dammit, Gene, wake up--don't you realize that every one of your kids is still in school?"
It was true. The track record of Lang's kids was phenomenal in a neighborhood where one in every two students drops out.
Stoneman's dressing-down left the millionaire entrepreneur feeling terrific. He decided to parlay his impulsive personal adventure into a national program, the I Have a Dream Foundation. At latest count, 130 sponsors in 32 cities are backing more than 8,000 dreamers.
Sponsors range from New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn to presidential nephew James Bush. Others patch together the required $300,000 with contributions from churches, civic groups and friends.
The money is deposited in annuity funds operated by the foundation, and eventually pays tuition at a city or state college. Students eyeing private schools hustle for scholarships to make up the difference.
"The college scholarship is the ultimate plum for sixth-graders, but it's not the motivating plum," Lang said. "The big issue is keeping them in school and encouraging every kid to identify a future, to have a dream."
Problems dogged the original class of dreamers. Several dropped out, but most were persuaded to return to school. Six became pregnant, one with three children, but are expected to receive high school diplomas. One boy spent time in Attica state prison for attempted robbery; another is at Sing Sing, though he is taking college classes at Lang's behest.
Keeping kids on track takes constant attention, so Lang, the head of Refac Corp., delegated authority to John Rivera, a neighborhood youth worker.
Rivera, 27, describes his own high school counseling as "five minutes and an Army recruiting brochure."
As the program coordinator, he played nagging parent, big brother and best friend, watching report cards, arranging for tutors, setting up rap sessions and taking students to college fairs.
"Johnny showed me how to take all my negatives and turn them into positives," said David Nieves, a sophomore at Lower Manhattan Community College. Math nearly ended high school for him until Rivera found the right tutor, Nieves said.
"He was the person everyone related to. He pulled it all together," said Juan Martinez, a junior at Swarthmore. "Gene Lang was sort of a far-away figure, but through Johnny, he pulled it all together."
Rousana Serrano, an economics major at Barnard College planning on a career in commercial banking, said the key is catching kids young, before they're hardened by the street.
"You really have to start molding a kid's mind early," she said, "so that they say, 'What kind of question is that, if I'm going to college or not? Of course I am.' "
The attitude that "school is not cool" is the biggest obstacle, Rivera said. Break that with a little outside help, he said, and East Harlem students can and do go anywhere.
"These are the same old kids in the same old neighborhood, but Gene injected some outside influence," Rivera said. "He isn't a knight on a white horse. He's a warm human representative from south of 96th Street. We go down 5th Avenue and all we see is the doorman in the uniform outside, and we could never go in."
"It brought two vastly different societies together," said Martinez, who once was awe-struck by "the millionaire," but now prefers to argue about international economics when visiting Lang's mid-town office.
To stop recycling the problems of the inner city, everyone must be included--the gifted and the ungifted, Lang said.