New help for US students. Businesses, individuals join to provide financial support

It was no ordinary Wednesday for public education. From the ``rust belt'' to the Sunbelt, businesses and city residents joined together to boost their beleaguered public high schools -- and the dreams of their often disadvantaged students.

At a late-morning press conference at the historic Old State House in Boston, area business leaders unveiled a stunning new $5 million program. The two-pronged plan not only guarantees financial aid to all qualified graduates of the city's public high schools. It will also provide jobs for these students when they finish their education -- the first such private-sector promise in the United States.

Just hours earlier, in Dallas, New York philanthropist Eugene Lang helped launch a separate nationwide initiative modeled after his successful ``I Have a Dream Program.''

Both events reflect a scattered but growing movement -- fueled by businesses and individuals -- to invigorate the nation's public schools in the face of federal budget cuts. In Los Angeles, for instance, well over 500 local businesses have ``adopted'' individual schools, and now offer tutoring, career education, even classroom materials. Similar programs have been established in Pittsburgh and other cities.

``Many of these young people need someone taking an interest in them, encouraging them,'' says Brunetta Wolfman, president of Roxbury Community College and an unflagging activist for urban youth. She adds: ``I just hope the word gets out to kids -- that they do have a chance.''

Lang's idea of ``adopting'' specific classes of sixth-grade students has certainly lifted hopes and sparked interest since it was uncovered by the news media a year ago. If you finish high school, he told the group of black and Hispanic youngsters, I'll pay your college tuition. His incentive worked: While 75 percent of the minority students in New York drop out of high school, Lang expects 50 of the 51 students to get diplomas next year. Of those, 20 to 25 will probably enroll in college.

In New York, Lang's efforts have mushroomed into a $2.25 million program that has helped brighten the future of 500 of the city's young students. In Dallas, city residents have already pledged enough money for 1,000 sixth-grade pupils, all black, to eventually attend a state university. And, according to Lang, 20 other cities -- from Detroit to Denver, San Francisco to San Antonio -- are ready to start programs of their own.

The same sort of wildfire growth could follow the spark set in Boston. US Education Secretary William J. Bennett hails the program as a national model that ``captures our imagination.''

It has already drawn inquiries from several other cities, largely because they face -- to some degree -- the same problems as Boston: deterioration of public schools and the isolation of urban youth from the economic mainstream.

Since court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, enrollment in Boston schools has dropped from 93,000 in 1974 to 59,000 today. Of that dwindling number, only 3,000 students graduate -- and less than half of those go on to college. Combine that with federal budget cuts and deeper social problems, and it's clear that cities like Boston face an education crisis.

Those conditions could change, however, given the remarkable commitment of the business community to Boston's new program. Since last year, 332 companies have made pledges totaling $3.8 million. Their goal of $5 million is within reach.

The funds will flow in two directions:

It will bolster the financial counseling and ``gap'' financing offered by the Action Center for Educational Services and Scholarship. The center provides small grants (averaging $535) to graduating seniors who have maintained a C average and gained admission to college.

Funds will also help extend the business community's four-year agreement -- the Boston Compact -- to hire qualified high school graduates. The companies that support the compact will now guarantee jobs to students when they finish college.

``It will send a message of hope and opportunity out into the neighborhoods,'' says Ms. Wolfman of Roxbury Community College. She sighs that, finally, ``the business community is saying, `Yes, there is a job at the end of the tunnel.' ''

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