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Local hotel magnate Stewart Bainum had benevolent intentions when he went to Fairlawn in 1988 and promised a bunch of money to middle school students. That was how area resident Martece Gooden Yates wound up attending Kramer Middle School—“a school that no one wanted to go to, unless you just had to,” she says.

Bainum sponsored the second D.C. chapter of the national I Have A Dream Foundation, which offers college scholarships to those who graduate from high schools in low-income neighborhoods. Kramer was the second-lowest-performing junior high school in the District during the city’s crack and murder epidemic of the 1980s. Its struggles were what attracted Bainum, who offered scholarships to three
Kramer homeroom classes: the top, middle, and bottom of the school’s academic ranks.

Yates had planned on attending a better school until a representative from the Commonweal Foundation, Bainum’s privately funded philanthropic endeavor, told her family about the scholarship. Yates’ academic promise, paradoxically enough, secured her spot at one of the worst schools in the country.

Yates and the other 66 “Dreamers,” as the foundation calls its students, are the subjects of Charlottesville filmmaker Betsy Cox’s documentary Southeast 67, which will premiere tomorrow, Feb. 27, at the D.C. Independent Film Festival. The film is funded by Commonweal, and was originally intended as a short piece for internal use related to a 2012 follow-up study of the class.

But Cox saw potential in the Dreamers’ stories for a richer narrative that could find an audience outside the foundation, once freed from the stipulations of a for-hire video project. She sought and received permission to fashion a feature documentary divorced from Commonweal’s editorial control.

“It’s a very specific story about a specific group of kids at a specific time in a specific community,” Cox says. “But their experience, I think, can so easily be extrapolated out to other communities. I think there are certain things that are universal about kids growing up in communities that are impoverished.”

Cox says the film incidentally brought her career “full circle.” While Bainum’s class of Dreamers was attending Kramer, Cox was making a film about a different D.C. class of Dreamers for another employer. Her team often heard stories of the “Kramer Dreamers” and the support Bainum was giving them. Cox built her production company, Red Spark Films, into an outfit specializing in local nonprofits and social advocacy, so it was a natural stop when Commonweal came calling years later.

For the feature-length Southeast 67, Cox interviewed a small handful of Dreamers and spent more than a year tracking down footage from the area in the late ’80s that didn’t involve a crime scene. After months of searching, Cox’s team turned up footage from a British filmmaker for an unfinished documentary, including a profile of the Dreamer program, sitting in storage in Portugal. The team supplemented these visuals with statistics about children born in poverty, which flash on the screen between Dreamer testimonies, reminding viewers of the real-world odds they were up against.

The resulting film is probing and often critical of the I Have A Dream program’s structure. By the year 2000, when Bainum’s scholarships were to have finished paying out, only six or seven members of the Dreamer class had graduated college. Southeast 67 doesn’t feature any of them.

Instead, the film profiles three Dreamers who, for various reasons, did not do what the foundation wanted them to do: use the scholarship money to earn a college degree. Tenille Warren, one of the subjects, graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts with dreams of being a fashion designer but decided to work full time instead so she could make enough money to move out of Southeast. By the time she circled back to college, in 2009, it was too late to use the Dream scholarship, which had to be used within six years of high school graduation. (She is currently enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.)

Yates graduated from high school and began a semester at the University of the District of Columbia with Dream support, but her mother’s crack addiction and her own pregnancy pushed her to delay college while she took care of her family. Now, she’s enrolled in Trinity University’s nursing program without help from the Dream program.

What wasn’t made clear to the Dreamers at the time was that the national program’s structure only required benefactors to match the average cost of in-state public school college tuition. In D.C., that meant a semester at UDC, so regardless of where the students wound up in school, Bainum would only be on the hook for $4,000 in tuition funds—still a generous offer by any stretch, but not always a full ride. Because the scholarships were earmarked specifically for higher education use, any Dreamer who did not begin college within 18 months of graduation and accumulate at least $4,000 in higher ed expenses within six years forfeited whatever part of the scholarship hadn’t been spent.

Southeast 67 seems to critique the naïveté of education nonprofits that think all kids need to succeed is some encouragement, when in fact many need a bevy of concrete resources just to get through school. Viewers might conclude that, in this film, Commonweal has vountarily funded its own public reckoning. “I was not trying to glorify the program,” Cox says. “In fact, the educators at the end of the program—I think they would have said they didn’t feel it was a success. They really had hopes that they would be able to get 100 percent of the kids to graduate [from high school].”

One of those educators was Phyllis Rumbarger, who worked as a mentor for the Dreamers. Along with fellow mentor Steve Bumbaugh, Rumbarger went to great lengths to help the Dreamers: staying at school into the evenings most days to give them somewhere to go, taking them on field trips, and, later, driving them to visit college campuses. Many of the Dreamers thought of her as a second mom.

Rumbarger demurred when I asked her if I Have A Dream was a success. “How do you measure success?” she said. Program administrators learned early on that achieving a 100 percent graduation rate would be impossible in the area, given the many social and economic obstacles the students faced. So even though the Dream team had to outwardly abide by the national foundation requirements and push for high school graduation, its internal goals shifted: “Love of learning, perseverance, don’t give up, be a good citizen.”

Upon graduation, some Dreamers ended up attending out-of-state colleges and were surprised to learn they’d still have to take on debt to get their degree. Most didn’t make it far enough to discover this, though. “Our first girls were having babies at 14,” Rumbarger says. “You had students who were arrested. Our first death was in ninth grade—he was killed on the streets. The schools were the worst in the country, and this was the worst of the worst schools, and many of their parents were young teenagers when they were born. Poverty was rampant; violence was rampant. How are you even prepared?”

One way was to offer more to students than a promise. Bainum gave his Dreamers benefits that students in other I Have A Dream chapters didn’t have, including summer jobs at his hospitality chains HCR ManorCare and Choice Hotels International. (Yates was one of his Dreamer employees.) In an effort to help some students escape rough home lives, Bainum also paid for tuition at Mount Vernon Academy, a private Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Ohio he’d attended as a child.

But the question of I Have A Dream’s success hung over a Commonweal-sponsored “sneak preview” screening on February 6 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where Dreamers who weren’t able to use the scholarship money still had overwhelmingly positive things to say about the program. During the post-screening Q&A, several kids in the audience, many the children of Dreamers, asked variations on the same question: Did the program make a difference? One asked if the Dreamers thought they would be in jail if not for the program.

Onstage, Antwan Green laughed. The Dreamer and Southeast 67 subject had spent time in jail after dropping out of 11th grade at Mount Vernon Academy, which he’d attended in part to escape life in the homeless shelters where his mother raised him. “I was with the program before I got in trouble,” Green said. In promotional materials Commonweal handed out at the screening, Green maintained that being a Dreamer “changed my life.” Today, Green owns ASG Trucking in Essex, Md., and has earned his GED.

Commonweal staff enjoyed Southeast 67, according to spokeswoman Erica Dyson. “We found the film compelling,” Dyson wrote in an email, adding that it “highlighted where we succeeded as a program, and where we could have possibly done more, had we fully understood the extent of [students’] circumstances.” Bainum, who died a year ago this month, never got to see the finished film.

After 1988, Commonweal never sponsored another Dream program. (One chapter remains in D.C., sponsored by Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.) Rumbarger, who worked for the organization in various positions including executive director until her 2009 retirement, feels there were too many flaws in the structure. She would have preferred to start working with students earlier than middle school and budget program funds for student mental-health care.

But seeing how few Dreamers had college degrees in the follow-up study drove Rumbarger to form Fulfilling the Dream, a new foundation dedicated to raising scholarships for Dreamers and their families. “I’ve seen their struggles,” she says. “I’ve seen their educational debt. I’ve seen their commitment to their children, and their children are in good charter schools and are doing their homework and studying… How can you not help them?” Her foundation’s first goal is to help Dreamers, but she ultimately hopes to award scholarships to “any underserved poor students,” without any GPA requirements. Commonweal has also begun offering scholarships for Dreamer children.

Yates, whose mother has since gone clean, is looking to find a new definition of success through her participation in the film. “At the end of the day, if this film can help one person, then my mom and I have totally done our job,” she says. “Our goal is to just help others who are probably going through some of the same things we were going through.”

The film premieres February 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Barracks Row Theater Church. $5.

Photo by Nancy Andrews/the Washington Post courtesy of Red Spark Films