This lady promised her first grade class that she'd pay their college tuition if they finished high school. You'll be surprised how many of 'em did it.
There is a "Where are they now?" section, but I'll leave that out here.
LaTosha Hunter beamed as she walked across the stage in her black cap and gown and collected her diploma. Then she retreated from the searing Mississippi heat to a shady spot, where she embraced Oral Lee Brown, the Oakland real estate agent whose remarkable promise 16 years ago got her there.
In 1987, Brown told Hunter and two dozen other first-graders at Brookfield Elementary School that she would put them through college if they graduated from high school. Four years ago, most of them did, with 19 enrolling in college.
On Saturday, Hunter became the first person in her family -- and the first from that first-grade class -- to earn a college degree, a bachelor's in accounting from Alcorn State University. And Hunter's beloved Miss Brown was there to see it, telling her afterward: "It's a new beginning for you."
"She just said, 'It's finally over.' She said she's so proud of me," said Hunter, 21. "I don't know what I would be today if I hadn't met Miss Brown. It's just her inspiration. It's carrying us so far."
Next month, Brown, 58, will attend the graduation of another one of her students, Jeffery Toney, in Illinois. Four more of them are on track to receive bachelor's degrees next year. Brown's moral and financial support, along with their own hard work, was key to their success, Hunter and Toney said.
STRUGGLES AND TRAGEDY
But the journey has hardly been a fairy tale for all of them. One student was shot and killed on an Oakland street last year. Two are single mothers forced to juggle parenting with work and school. Some have dropped out altogether -- although most hope to finish college.
"I have tried to do all that I can do," said Brown, who had been making $45, 000 a year when she started setting aside $10,000 a year into a trust fund nearly two decades ago.
"I would have loved for all of them to walk across the stage in caps and gowns this year, but that would be a miracle," she said.
The odds were stacked against the squirming 6- and 7-year-olds who made up Brookfield's "worst" first-grade class.
Nearly all of them were poor, and they lived in the violence-plagued flatlands of East Oakland. Statistically, 3 of 4 students who started as freshmen at the local high school dropped out, and of those who did graduate, just 1 in 3 had the grades to enroll in a state university.
GLIMPSE OF SOMETHING BETTER
But when Brown stood in front of them 16 years ago and promised to send them to college, she gave 23 children, whom few people expected to amount to anything, a glimpse of something better to reach for. She also set in motion a sociological experiment involving the youngsters, many of whose parents didn't complete high school and none of whom had a family member finish college.
She tutored them weekly. She bought them Christmas presents. And when they were old enough, she took them to visit colleges.
Twelve years after she started, Brown's experiment already showed remarkable results. Twenty of Brown's 23 students graduated from high school, the majority from Oakland's Castlemont High School, where just 26 percent of the class that began as freshmen in the 1994-95 school year finished school.
Nineteen of her students enrolled in colleges, some in community colleges, but many in four-year universities, from San Jose State to private colleges in Chicago, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Brown brushes off any credit for Toney and Hunter's success, saying they did the work themselves. "I'm just proud of the ones that have looked at the opportunity that was given to them and said, 'I'm going to take advantage of it,' " she said.
Hunter played on the university's volleyball and softball teams, made the dean's list four times, got certified to do income taxes and will be taking the GMAT test in June in hopes of attending graduate business school next year.
"I'm not even tired of school," said Hunter, who will intern with a Bay Area accounting firm this summer. "I don't think I'm at the peak of where I need to be, as far as knowledge is concerned, so I'm going to keep going."
But she is first to admit she has struggled. The hardest and most important thing about college for her, Hunter said by telephone, has been the need to "become responsible for myself."
"If anything happens, I know it is because I let it happen," she said, adding that she didn't even have a driver's license when she moved to Mississippi four years ago.
She was named a member of the school's "All-Academic Team" in addition to receiving honors as the volleyball team's defensive player of the year and the softball team's best hitter.
Hunter said she thrived too because of the support of two special women: Brown, who always told her to "look on the positive side," and her mother, Gloria Hicks, who consistently pushed her to finish college -- then took a 72- hour Greyhound bus ride to see her graduate.
Toney, who will graduate June 1 with a bachelor's in business management from Columbia College in Chicago, said Brown influenced his choices about education more than anyone else, including his teachers and parents.
"Now that I'm older, and I realize what type of environment I was in, I know Miss Brown saved my life," said Toney, 22.
Toney, who plans to move to Los Angeles to work in the music industry, said his success hinged on moving out of Oakland so he could concentrate on school without getting caught up with old friends involved with drugs or violence.
Even his mother, who lives in San Francisco, and father, who lives in Oakland, have not visited him in Chicago. It was Brown who helped him settle into the dormitory when he moved there four years ago, and it is Brown he speaks to regularly by phone.
"You can talk to Miss Brown. You don't feel intimidated," said Toney, who hopes to earn an MBA someday. "She gives off that vibe of everything is cool. A real people person."
Brown was not the first person to "adopt" a class from a low-income neighborhood. Eugene Lang -- who later founded the national I Have a Dream Foundation -- did that 22 years ago when he told 61 Harlem sixth-graders he'd pay their college tuition if they stayed in school.
More than 90 percent of the 54 students who stuck with Lang's program graduated from high school. Thirty-eight students then enrolled in college, with 27 ultimately earning a bachelor's or associate degree, said foundation spokesperson Noelle Dong.
But while other philanthropists were wealthy, Brown was a working woman who had been raised in poverty in the rural South. Her early struggles resonated with the students in her hometown.
Hunter said she turned down admission to Florida A&M to go to Alcorn State University in part because it was in Mississippi, not far from where Brown grew up.
"I wanted to see where she was coming from, because . . . if she can make it, I can make it," Hunter said.
At age 18, Brown moved to Oakland, attended college and opened a realty business.
Brown said she decided to adopt the class after a chance midday encounter with a 9-year-old Oakland girl, who asked her for money to buy ingredients for a sandwich when she should have been in school.
Three weeks later, Brown told the principal of Brookfield Elementary that she wanted to adopt a class, tutor them weekly and someday send them to college.
Brown bought them food and clothes when they needed them, and once helped Child Protective Services remove a student from an abusive home and place her in foster care. When her students were in the ninth grade, Brown flew them East for a tour of colleges like Morehouse and Spelman.
Toney said the trip was a turning point for him, not just because it was the first time he had flown.
"It was ninth grade, and I was not thinking about college at all," he laughed. "I was thinking about what shoes I was going to buy."
Four years ago, when 19 of the original students set off for college, Brown told The Chronicle she still fretted about the other four. Now she is mulling new disappointments.
Tracy Easterling is dead, killed because of the friends she associated with.
Some students have dropped out, while a few have pursued classes in just fits and starts. Some, she said, have seemed torn between their own aspirations and the low expectations set for them by their parents.
That has been Brown's biggest frustration, so much so that when the foundation she started adopted another group of elementary school students, she required their parents to sign a contract to stay involved in their children's lives as a condition for participation.
"What if Mama's telling you to go to Macy's, they're paying $10 an hour? To me, a $10-an-hour job is nothing, but to a person whose parents are on welfare,
$10 an hour is a lot of money," Brown said.
"It's disappointing, but every person should be responsible for their destiny," she said.
With one graduation under her belt, Brown is looking forward to her trip to Chicago for Toney's graduation.
Toney, a hip-hop performer who scored a record deal in high school, wrote a song about what Brown has done for him, called "Real Life Angel." He will perform it at the ceremony.
"Like the song says, I think God sent her to me," he said.
"She was like, 'Yo, the door is open.' You're either going to go through it or sit and look at the door. The individual has to choose," Toney said. "I chose to walk through the door."