In Boulder County many students are lucky to have the means to make it through school without a single blip, but for those living in the lower income districts of the county it isn’t that simple. The people at the “I Have a Dream” Foundation are doing everything they can to change that. We chatted with CEO Lori Canova about the program.I
Yellow Scene: Can you tell me about how “I Have a Dream” got started?
Lori Canova: “I Have a Dream” is part of a national organization but they have an affiliate here. Our affiliate here started in 1990 with a group of kids. The individuals who supported the program initially were Bob and Diane Greenly. We started with family learning centers and started working with the kids at San Juan. Now after 25 years, we’re celebrating here in Boulder County. The program has expanded from Boulder to Lafayette to Longmont and is one of the largest “I Have a Dream” programs in the country. Basically, we aim to reduce the high school dropout rate and prepare kids to get them through to college by providing long-term support, starting in elementary school. Everyday we do after-school programming with tutoring in literacy, and math. We also work on character building. We have a summer program. We start the kids no later than 2nd grade and stay with them through college. It’s a very long term, intensive program with great results.
YS: So then you stay with them all the way through college until they graduate college then?
LC: We now have a college department that was started 4-5 years ago. At first, it was mostly to award the scholarship, but then we realized that a lot of kids don’t complete college so we wanted to make sure kids got into college. Not only get in, but to complete. So we have a college department that helps students fill out financial aid forms, apply for scholarships and connect them to whatever resources there are at the college level. We want to make sure they have support in college, provide career mentors and help with the job skills to help them get internships. The scholarship isn’t only for college but for any post-secondary program. Some of our students get apprenticeships such as a meat cutter or a massage therapist. They can use the scholarship for more technical fields. We just want to make sure the students find their passions and be self-sufficient to rise out of poverty to find an opportunity for education.
YS: Can you describe how you select the kids to participate in the program?
LC: The main criteria is that they are of low-income status. What we do is we raise the funds and we get people to sponsor the students, so each student is $2000 a year for the programming costs and $500 a year for the scholarship, which grows over time. Each student gets $10,000 to use towards college. We look for individuals who sponsor one or more students and once we get 50 of the students sponsored at that $2500 a year level, we talk to the school districts, the superintendents, and find out which schools have the highest needs for our programs. We also talk to the housing authority to find out which housing sites might have a need and then we have an application process for principals to fill out to partner with us. We look to see where the greatest need is and then we’ll go into that school or the housing site and send a letter to the parents of second graders and younger saying that the are eligible to sign up for the program, which entails a long term commitment. We kick it off with an induction ceremony. We do at 60 kids at a time in 7 cohorts; we have three in Boulder, 2 in Longmont, and 2 in Lafayette. We try to reach out to each of those communities and we’re growing and continue to add more students per program. Right now, in our program, we have 380 students K-12, and then we have about 150 students that are in college. We’re serving these kids and their families across the county.
YS: Do you get a lot of volunteers/mentors that come in and want to help?
LC: Yes. We have a waiting list of kids that are waiting for mentors. We especially need male mentors, or mentors of color, and female mentors as well. I think we are one of the largest mentor programs in the area but we could still use some more. We have about 110 mentors and about 300 tutors, but they are only there once a week. We could use some more tutors and mentors for sure because we do have a waiting list of kids without mentors. It is so critical to have that one-on-one support for the kids and it’s a great opportunity in the community for people to learn from one another. Our mentors get to learn as much from the Dreamers as the Dreamers learn from them. It’s a nice way to integrate different communities since people come from different ethnic and economic backgrounds. It’s a nice way to have people come together.
YS: If a student joins the program and they don’t quite make it through high school, they drop out, what happens with the resources and the funding that has gone into that student?
LC: We have an over 90% and increasing graduation rate so there is a very small percentage who don’t complete the program. We also have “Dreamer Guests,” students that might have missed the cutoff when the class started so the money would go to that student. We try to be as inclusive as possible and be able to offer that opportunity to another student. There’s no specific requirement as far as a certain GPA; we work with all kids to help them reach their potential. Life has its ups and downs and you might get off path, but we work with you through your adolescent years to make sure you get back on track to reach your dreams. Students have up to two years from your expected graduation date to graduate. A few of our students end up getting their GEDs because some do come from challenging home situations. One student had to go back to work because his family had no money to put on the table, so school ended up being a second priority and now we’re working with him to get his GED. There are different life circumstances that happen and we just make to make sure we help them to reach their potential. So to answer your question, it just goes to another student.
YS: How did you get involved with the program?
LC: My whole career has been working with youth and non-profits. I had worked with Big Brothers as a mentor, and for the Metro Health Arena doing more intervention with kids who have gotten in trouble with the law. What I’ve loved about “I Have a Dream” is that we are a prevention program, really working with kids early on and long term with a chance to get to know the kids and the families. When I saw the position open, I thought that it was a perfect blend of all the experience I had. I wanted to jump at the opportunity to work with the organization. It’s great to have been involved in a program that has grown to be so successful with the results that we have. 90% of our kids graduate, 85% go on to college or vocational school and that’s a great percentage. I actually grew up here in Boulder, went to college in Fort Collins and then I went to work in Denver and then when I heard about the opportunity to come back to Boulder to work for “I Have a Dream,” I jumped at the chance. It has been nice to give back to the community that I grew up in. I knew I wanted to do social work in high school, and I knew this was the perfect path for me.
YS: What does the future hold for the “I Have a Dream” Foundation?
LC: We continue to expand our partnerships with other organizations in the community. We have 15,000 students that are on the free reduced lunch program between those school districts – Boulder Valley and St. Vrain. There are many, many more students to serve so we hope to collaborate with more partners and continue to get the word out about the needs of this hidden population in Boulder. People don’t realize how many kids are living in poverty and could use the support. If we increase awareness, we can get more financial support to sponsor students, as well as volunteer support for people to become mentors and tutors and then we can continue to break the cycle of poverty and increase the graduation and college rates for students. We can be able to impact future generations to do well. We just need continued awareness and people to sponsor students and offer their time as well. It’s a community wide effort.