How 59 Urban Kids Fared After a Rich Gift

They were offered free college by two benefactors in 1988. Find out how these D.C. pupils are doing now.

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This is an excerpt of the first in a three-part series on the fate of 59 fifth-graders who were given an extraordinary gift: the promise of a college education paid for by two wealthy businessmen.

Written by Paul Schwartzman

Darone Robinson and Rudolph Norris were driving home after playing basketball one afternoon, reminiscing about their school years together, about that kid who made them laugh, the kid with the colorful shirts and infectious cackle.

What happened to William Smith, the prankster standing at the center of their class picture?

Back in the spring of 1988, they'd all been friends at Seat Pleasant Elementary, part of a class of fifth-graders from some of Prince George's County's poorest neighborhoods.

Then, on a May afternoon, they received an unexpected gift that would alter their lives: the promise of a college education, paid for by two wealthy businessmen. Suddenly, the 11-year-olds were part of an ambitious social experiment being tried across the country, one that brought together rich benefactors and needy kids in a largely untested but intimate style of philanthropy aimed at lifting entire families out of poverty.

At Seat Pleasant, the promise generated a wave of publicity and excitement, transforming the fifth-graders into symbols of hope in their own neighborhoods and well beyond. The scholarships gave them a chance to achieve a kind of success that had eluded most of their parents. Yet their good fortune also became a burden that would endure long after they reached adulthood. The questions followed them: What would become of William Smith, Darone Robinson and the rest of the Seat Pleasant 59?

Would they graduate from high school?

Would they make it to college?

What would they make of their gift?

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