Promise kept: 1st graders offered college tuition 12 years ago graduate, still dreaming big

(CBS News) It's a story that began more than a decade ago, when a businessman made a deal with some kids in rural Georgia, who were then just starting first grade. Those students were profiled on "60 Minutes" when they were in fourth grade.

Last week they graduated high school, and most are headed to college -- with tuition covered.

These days most kids at Green County High School are dreaming about summer break. Then there's Tyesha Dalton.

"I work hard. I worked very hard to get where I am," Dalton said.

She's spent 12 years focused on a future beyond Greensboro, Ga. -- where nearly 20 percent live in poverty.

"In this community some might have been in foster care and not really have a home or a room they can call their own," she said.

In 2000, Dalton was one of 54 first graders chosen to be part of Greensboro's "I Have a Dream" program. The project was created by Tom Kelly, a healthcare executive who had moved nearby when he retired.

"My mom came from Ireland and if she had a nickel she gave it to someone," Kelly said. "And she always told us, 'You better give back. You have to give back. '"

So Kelly made a promise to those first graders 12 years ago.

"The promise was that we will help you get into college and we pay last dollar so you can definitely not have finances be a problem in going to college."

Read more about the Dreamers from "60 Minutes"
I Have a Dream Foundation

Kelly raised $2 million to pay student expenses not covered by scholarships. Dalton and her fellow Dreamers committed to staying late at school on weekdays, attending weekend study halls, and taking summer classes.

"We have never had a summer as a regular kid," Dalton said.

She was in fourth grade when "60 Minutes" first reported on the Dreamers. "When I grow up, I want to own my own babysitting daycare," she told the cameras.

Her dreams are intact -- she still wants a daycare -- but the program has widened her field of vision. Now she says she wants to be a pediatrician.

That's exactly what Tom Kelly had in mind. It's why he took them on 80 trips, brought them to space camp, even made sure they learned proper table manners.

"The thinking is that you cannot dream about what you want to be unless you know what's out there," Kelly said.

Last week, all the Dreamers who started at Green County High graduated; 85 percent are headed to college or trade school.

Dalton says she's doing so with confidence. Which has a lot of people applauding in Green County -- maybe one man just a little louder than all the rest.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.