Five years ago, 12-year-old Isabelle Garcia sat with her sixth-grade classmates in South Los Angeles and heard a guest speaker at graduation make them an offer that seemed too good to be true:
If they did not drop out of school--and if they earned good grades--they need not worry about having to pay for a college education.
Isabelle and her brother, Sergio, then 11, along with 80 other graduates of Holmes Elementary, pledged then to stay in school--a tall order in a neighborhood plagued by drugs and gangs, where many think of the future as nothing more than one hand-to-mouth tomorrow at a time.
In return, the Los Angeles chapter of the nonprofit I Have A Dream Foundation promised to pay each pupil's tuition--up to $1,000 a year--at a California state college or vocational training school.
This week, Isabelle Garcia, now 17, became the first in her class to make good on the pledge, when she received her high school diploma Thursday from Valley Alternative School, a Los Angeles Unified School District magnet school in Van Nuys.
"It was," Isabelle said Friday, "the happiest day of my life."
The I Have A Dream Foundation originated in 1981, when a New York philanthropist promised children from an East Harlem school that he would pay their college costs if they were willing to work hard. Today, about 40 U.S. cities participate in the program.
In Los Angeles, the Whittier Family Foundation has agreed to provide funding for Isabelle and her classmates, as well as 205 youngsters who graduated from 52nd Street Elementary in 1987. The Los Angeles chapter now begins its program in the third grade and includes more than 550 inner-city youths.
Isabelle skipped the eighth grade to jump ahead of her original class, which has just completed the 11th grade. Fewer than 20% of the program's first class has left school--a dropout rate less than half that of many South Los Angeles schools.
Isabelle says she plans to attend Cal State Los Angeles in the fall and will major in history, with hopes of becoming, first, a police officer, then an attorney and a judge.
For Lori Jaramillo--the counselor who presented Isabelle with her diploma and serves as project coordinator for youngsters sponsored by the foundation--the graduation was "the highlight of my career." She said Isabelle represented "one of my hardest challenges--to keep leading her at times when I knew she was determined not to follow."
An honor student by the time she graduated, Isabelle had to navigate so many troubled waters during her early teens that, as she puts it, "I was pretty messed up. My grades went way down. So many kids were smarter than I was. I almost quit."
She talked openly about her tormented seventh-grade year--the nights she sneaked away to smoke "weed" with friends, the days she brawled so violently that her mother often had to be summoned from work to join Isabelle in the school counselor's office.
A personal turning point for Isabelle occurred one night a year ago, she said, when a teen-age boy she did not know pounded on her front door, apparently strung out on heroin. His arms, she said, "were covered with needle marks that looked like mosquito bites.
"I'd been fixing my hair, and when I opened the door I still had my hairbrush in my hand," she said. "He was terrified. He looked at the hairbrush and must have thought it was some kind of weapon. He said: 'Don't kill me!'
"I said to him: 'I'm not going to kill you! Tell me, what's wrong?' I noticed he had a needle. I said to him: 'Drop it right now! And forget drugs!' "
The next day, she said, the boy returned "to thank me. He said: 'You're the only person who's ever cared.' "
While achieving a B grade average in high school--and almost all A's in her last semester--Isabelle tutored Latino youngsters in English and volunteered in Lutheran Social Services program to help the homeless.
Much of her success--and, perhaps, her career promise--stems from what one educator describes as her strong social conscience. "She wants very much to help the underdog," said Mary Lou Clayton, assistant principal at Valley Alternative School. "She gets irate when people are taken advantage of. She's willing to take a stand, and that's a rare quality among young people of her age."
For her life's turnaround, Isabelle said she owes a special debt to Jaramillo and to her mother, Isabel, who came here from Guadalajara, Mexico, with Isabelle and her brother 14 years ago. "She stuck by me when I really needed her," she said.
Jaramillo "pushed me," she said. "She convinced me that if I put my mind to it, I can achieve whatever I want to. I know I'll never give up, on anything."