Executive Director Emily Hamilton said the group&rsquo;s long-term commitment to its students is the reason for the high graduation rates.Photo by Duane Tinkey<br />
Executive Director Emily Hamilton said the group’s long-term commitment to its students is the reason for the high graduation rates.Photo by Duane Tinkey

Low-income at-risk students often have extraordinary challenges to overcome both inside and outside the classroom. Even if these students graduate from high school, attending college can remain an unaffordable dream.

That’s where the “I Have a Dream” Foundation comes in. The nonprofit organization works with a group of elementary-school-age students over the years, providing the resources and help necessary for them to graduate from high school. Every student who receives a high school diploma then has his or her college expenses paid for by the nonprofit.

This long-term commitment to the students has a proven track record. Executive Director Emily Hamilton said the organization’s first “class,” which was adopted in 1996, had a graduation rate of 85 percent. Its second class had a graduation rate of 95 percent.

Hamilton said the key to the organization’s success is providing long-term, stable relationships to its “dreamers,” which it does in three ways.

Each class receives help from an academic coordinator, who assists students with their classroom needs, and a program coordinator, who provides help with the children’s emotional needs.

Every student is also paired with a mentor, who provides one-on-one support. The children also receive additional help in subjects they struggle with, in the form of after-school tutoring and summer school, Hamilton said.

Now in its 22nd year, the “I Have a Dream” Foundation is working with its third class of dreamers. The first-graders adopted from King Elementary School in 2006 are now in sixth grade at Callanan Middle School.

But more important, Hamilton said each student will tell you exactly where he or she wants to be after high school graduation – whether it’s cosmetology school, vocational school, a community college or a four-year university.

The organization works closely with the Des Moines Independent Community School District to choose which students to adopt, and it spends around $2 million to see a class through from start to finish, relying solely on donations and fund-raisers, Hamilton said.

“These kids have a lot of different obstacles,” Hamilton said. “There are just a lot of at-risk factors.”