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Teaching Poor Kids How To Succeed

In Newport News, Va., a public school has partnered with the business community and developed a rather unique program to give kids from kindergarten through 8th grade the tools and structure they need to succeed in life. By all indications, it's working.

An Achievable Dream Academy isn't like any other school, reports The Early Show's Melinda Murphy. For starters, each and every child is required to shake hands with school administrators before they can start their day.

And school officials aren't the only ones who greet them, so do U.S. soldiers - the same soldiers who lead a morning rally, of sorts.

The children say the Pledge of Allegiance, get their uniforms inspected, and recite life mottos that are printed on banners hanging on the walls.

So what's the point of all this?

Director Richard Coleman says, "Our focus is to provide a character development education for all our children. Our focus is to narrow the achievement gap."

These kids are from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Newport News, Va., and almost 80 percent of them are from broken homes.

Myron Smith, who is in the 7th grade, says, "My mother died and my father's in jail, but I think I do better...because I know I have to strive harder to do better so my mom will be proud."

In addition to regular subjects like math and science, these kids take classes in things like etiquette. It's all geared towards helping them in the business world.

LaBrea Bryance, a 5th grader, explains, "The gentlemen learn how to seat the ladies, and we learn how to fold our napkins and sit down properly."

Coleman says, "Those social skills are critical social skills for our children. So they need to know what the hidden rules are, so they're not eliminated before they even get in the game."

There's also an elocution class called, "Speaking Green" (because green is the color of money).

"We have a tendency to say 'tick' instead of 'thick,' " a teacher notes. "We want to make sure we're correctly producing those words so people will know that we have control over the English language and that we are serious."

Coleman says, "We teach them that it's OK to speak the language in your neighborhood, but when you're in a professional environment, you need to learn to speak the appropriate language."

Achievable Dream was the brainchild of Walter Segaloff, a local businessman.

Segaloff says, "Many of the kids that I was interviewing for a position for our company were coming out of high school and, basically, they were functionally illiterate; they were not prepared."

It all started as, believe it or not, a tennis camp. And every kid there is required to play tennis. It's the only sport at the school.

Segaloff says, "I was looking for a hook, something magic. I was watching a tennis tournament one day and I said, 'Oops - that's the hook.' I wanted something that would support the character development portion of the program. Shaking hands, rules, regulations, non-violence, a lady's sport, a gentleman's sport.

Since 1992, the school has grown to a 1,000 students and now occupies its own building. But they've grown in more than just size.

Segaloff points out, "It's a unique program that works. And look at our results. We have literally no violence. How many schools can say that? We have a very high graduation rate. We're giving kids the foundation they need to be productive, law-abiding citizens."

And students there believe that attending this school is the chance of a lifetime.

Why is knowledge important?

Replies 6th grader Makynzee Madden, "Without knowledge, you'll probably be working at McDonald's saying, 'Do you want fries with that?' But if you have a nice job, a nice education, then you'll be sitting like Donald Trump and having your own multi-million dollar-business."

She has pretty high goals. "Yes," she affirms. "I think without the program, I would probably be great, but now that I'm here, I will probably be extrordinary."

The school day at an Achievable Dream is 8 1/2 hours, instead of the normal 6 1/4. And (get this) the kids go to school year round. But they don't seem to mind, because they feel the hard work will pay off.