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‘That Lady Who Works With Those Kids’

‘That Lady Who Works With Those Kids’Oakland realtor’s generosity, commitment sets youngsters on the path to a college degreeOAKLAND, Calif.
When Jeff Toney walked across the stage at commencement last month, it was not only a milestone for him, but also for his benefactor, Oral Lee Brown.  In 1987, Brown promised Toney and 22 other Black first-graders in Oakland that she would pay their way to college if they stayed in school. She started setting aside $10,000 annually out of a salary of less than $50,000.  
This year, two of those students graduated from college. Four more expect to don caps and gowns next year. And others are close behind as they head for the finish line in a social experiment that has drawn applause from education observers and talk shows nationally. 
“Anybody can do what I have done,” says Brown, an Oakland realtor. “I didn’t go to the moon. I’m no one special.”
Try telling that to others. In 1999, she was among 12 people nationally recognized by then-Education Secretary Richard Riley as a “hero of education.”  
Toney, who plans to attend graduate school this fall, doubts he would have earned his bachelor’s degree in arts business management from Columbia College in Chicago if Brown hadn’t entered his life. “It’s scary to think about because there were bad things around me in Oakland,” says Toney, 22. “There were lots of Black boys in poverty. And the older ones were going to jail. I was just fortunate to get through and leave it behind.”  
Of course, not everyone is that lucky, especially at a time when college costs everywhere are rising so much faster than financial aid. “Opportunity is disappearing from the American landscape,” says Mark Kelly, Columbia’s vice president of student affairs.
“How many Jeff Toneys aren’t getting the opportunity that he has gotten?” 
It’s a question that society shouldn’t ignore.
Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Judith K. Dimon professor of communities and schools at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, cautions that efforts such as Brown’s “are not a solution.”  
“In no way should we discourage such efforts,” says Noguera, who has met Brown. “But we shouldn’t expect major changes in education, either. The actions of one, two or even 10 heroic individuals cannot affect large-scale change. Parents must get more involved, and communities in general need to get more engaged.”
Brown echoes the sentiment. Ironically, she believes she has not done enough either. So after Toney and his peers started college, Brown promised another 60 Oakland children that they’ll also receive funds for tuition, housing and books at the college of their choice. But as part of that arrangement, the parents of all 60 had to agree to attend monthly meetings hosted by Brown. At the meetings, parents discuss how to encourage their kids to develop good study habits and prepare for high school exit exams.
Brown’s latest effort coincides with an Oakland public schools crisis. Last month, the state of California took control of the district, ousted its superintendent and approved a $100 million bailout loan for it. The district had racked up an $82 million deficit partly because of declining enrollment and the failure to offset spending to pay for the hiring of several hundred teachers and pay raises for the rest.
And despite modest improvements in recent years among student attendance and test scores, more than 50 percent of Oakland students still read below grade level.  A Myriad of Challenges
Brown’s own path to higher education was fraught with challenge.
The ninth of 12 children, she grew up in Batesville, Miss., picking cotton. She went to Black schools, but even as a youngster complained about walking in muddy streets to yield the sidewalk to Whites. Fearing retaliation, her parents sent her to New York at age 12 to live with an older sister. At 18, she joined a brother in Oakland. She held various jobs, including manager of an insurance firm. In 1979, she opened her realty, attending the University of San Francisco at night. She earned her bachelor’s degree in human relations in 1985. 
Two years later, Brown encountered a little girl on the street asking for money. Figuring the girl wanted candy, she took her to a nearby store, but the child wanted ingredients for a sandwich and brushed off Brown’s questions about why she wasn’t in school in the middle of the day.
Brown never saw the girl again, but remained haunted by the experience. She met the principal of the closest elementary school, figuring that was where the girl would’ve attended. Soon, Brown adopted the class of 23 first-graders and promised them a college education. Toney says he remembers her showing up with Christmas presents a few months later for them — his was a leather wallet.  
She began tutoring them, bought food and clothes when they needed them and took them on field trips to campsites and dairy farms. Meanwhile, she juggled work, marriage and raising two daughters of her own, while cautiously investing the annual set-asides for her young charges’ college expenses. She organized annual banquets as fund-raisers and started the charitable Oral Lee Brown Foundation, even though she struggled for mentors. The handful of philanthropists around the country interested in educating minorities weren’t like her. They were rich and committing to children much older than 6.
When Brown’s students reached ninth grade, she took them on a tour of historically Black colleges. For some, it was their first time on a plane. Meanwhile, their high school had a dropout rate of more than 70 percent. So Brown secured student volunteers from the University of California-Berkeley to tutor and help them fill out applications for college. To keep them motivated, Brown secured speakers such as actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner and author Terry McMillan.
Student LaTosha Hunter was so inspired by Brown that she turned down an offer from Florida A&M University to attend Alcorn State University in Brown’s home state of Mississippi. “I wanted to see where she came from,” says Hunter, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in May. “And I needed the challenge of getting away from city life.”
Hunter arguably rose to that challenge. She played on Alcorn State’s volleyball and softball teams and made the dean’s list four times. Like so many of Brown’s adopted students, she is first in her family to finish college. 
Of course, disappointment and tragedy have occurred, too. Some students from that 1987 class dropped out of high school. Then, some who started college dropped out. Last fall, one young woman, 21, was shot and killed in Oakland. 
Today, Brown’s foundation receives at least one call a week from someone “asking for that lady who works with those kids.” That led to expanding the pool from the original 23 students. The 60 other students are of different ethnicities and were chosen by foundation board members based on financial need. Just as she did years ago, Brown makes time for soccer games and music recitals. Now 58 and widowed, she still sets aside $10,000 a year from her salary for the future college costs. “Who gives me the right to say ‘no’ to someone desperate for help?” Brown asks rhetorically. “I am not as important as the children are.”
But her beneficiaries, like Toney, are taking notes. “Hopefully, I can help kids one day like she does,” says Toney, who has formed his own record label and production company. “There are lots of kids who want to go to college but are too poor.”

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