In 1991, a man in a suit turned up at Harrington Elementary School, one of the poorest, lowest-scoring schools in Cambridge. Standing in front of the 69 second-graders in the auditorium, he tossed each child a football.
The football is college, the millionaire and Brookline High graduate said. Study and work hard and he would pay their college tuition, he told them. Pick up the ball and run.
Their parents wept with joy, but the students were bewildered. They did not know the word ''tuition" or why college was important. Over the next decade, the extraordinary promise from a stranger would be both a boon and a burden.
If they went straight from high school to a four-year university, all should have graduated from college with a bachelor's degree this spring. Only four, including Steven Tavares, did.
Most tried some type of college or technical school, and a dozen finished a two-year program. More than half who went to college are still trying to complete a degree. Sixteen, including Vinnie Sousa, dropped out of college. Eight, including Marlene De Sousa, who became pregnant as a teen, never finished high school. Three went to jail for charges ranging from assault to selling drugs.
The struggles of the second-grade class at Harrington Elementary School to fulfill a philanthropist's dream reveal that the promise of money, counseling, and even a toll-free help line, cannot always trump poverty or family troubles.
''Our hope was that they would all go to college. We were like the kids. We did not know what this meant," said Anne S. Larkin, a Lesley University administrator who has tracked and worked with the students for the philanthropist. ''Our thought was we would do anything in our power to prepare them to get there."
The philanthropist, George A. Weiss, a Hartford money manager, first made such a pledge 18 years ago to children in Philadelphia.
He has spent more than $37 million to try to send 420 students to college from Hartford, Philadelphia, New York, and Cambridge.
In second grade, half of the Cambridge students had a learning disability. Most were learning English as their second language.
''Their homes were just barren. You couldn't say, 'Go home and find a picture' because they didn't have magazines," said Eileen Farrell, one of the group's second-grade teachers. ''Homework was a challenge. You couldn't say, 'Go home and have your family help you with this.' "
The college graduate
Steven Tavares struggled in school from the start, prompting his teacher to tell his parents he would have to repeat kindergarten. His mother recalls that tears welled from her eyes as she listened to the teacher. An immigrant from Cape Verde, Angela Gomes juggled her family and her job scrubbing bathrooms in an office building. She felt she had failed her son.
But because he failed, Tavares was in Harrington's second grade when the man with the footballs came. He barely remembers the day or the football. Tavares had doubts about how far he could go.
In elementary school, he did his homework but was an average student. Like aunts and an uncle, Larkin, Barbara Ulm, and Jose Ribeiro from Lesley University hovered over Tavares and the other students. When Tavares struggled, they got him a tutor. In fifth grade, he moved to Somerville, and they still kept tabs on him, sending him to summer camp.
At Somerville High School, he barely passed geometry and chemistry. He didn't think he was four-year college material and was considering community college.
When he worried about passing the SAT, the Lesley program paid for a test-preparation class and Ribeiro suggested he apply to St. Joseph's College, a four-year private school in Standish, Maine.
''After that it's, like, OK you better go," Tavares said.
But going to college in the tiny town was a tough adjustment. He had to oversee himself, making sure he studied and got to class on time.
He felt like he stood out because he was black, and other students were wealthier and mostly white.
He went home a lot at first, then eventually made friends.
He barely passed his first semester.
At the end of each semester, with several papers due, he often felt overwhelmed.
Once or twice, he thought about giving up, but then he would pull all-nighters or seek help.
Tavares graduated from St. Joseph's this month with a bachelor's degree.
For the moment, he's living in his family's Somerville apartment, working as a movie usher while he considers several professions, including counseling.
Last week, Tavares, now 22, interviewed at an employment firm.
''I think it worked for the students that wanted to go to school and do well in life," he said of Weiss's promise.
'I wish I had it in me to go'
Growing up, Vinnie Sousa thought the after-school and summer programs that came along with the promise were a pain at times. ''They got in the way of being a kid," he said.
Like Tavares, Sousa repeated kindergarten. He loved school when he was in second grade. But by the time he got to fifth grade, ''it all just kind of went downhill," he said. That year, his father, then a carpenter, fell three stories from a ladder and lost his sight; his father has been on disability ever since.
In high school at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, he wasn't interested in his grades. The only reason he graduated, he said, was because he promised his parents he would.
''I made it clear to them I'm not going to drop out because without a high school diploma, you're going to go nowhere," Sousa, now 22, said. ''Without a college degree, you can work your butt off and at least get somewhere."
Sousa, who began working at age 14, took a year off after high school, then began juggling jobs with community college classes. After struggling for a year at a community college in Bedford, he transferred to another one in Wellesley. He lasted one semester.
Sousa said he does not think he could face Weiss. ''I feel bad for screwing up that year and a half in college," he said.
Sousa now makes a little over $10 an hour as a security guard, a job he's gone back to off and on for the last four years. His mother manages the office at the Woburn security company. He checks the trailers of merchandise coming in and out of the warehouses at the Marshall's distribution center. It's not his dream job, something he believes he'll never find, he said.
''This looks like it's gonna be what I do," he said.
He lives with his parents in their Cambridge home, but hopes to buy a house in the suburbs one day. He still has the football Weiss threw him. His parents, neither of whom attended college, hope he'll go back to school before the offer expires in 2008.
''You get this free college education and people think it's stupid that you're not using it," Sousa said. ''I wish I had it in me to go back, but I'm realistic. ''
'Just not a school person'
Marlene De Sousa, because she had repeated a grade, wound up with her younger brother, Dino, in Harrington's lucky second-grade class.
But De Sousa could not concentrate in class or remember what she learned. Her parents, immigrants from the Azores, off Portugal, tried to help, but did not know how. Her mother finished sixth grade, and worked in a clothes manufacturer for a while, then retired on disability because of diabetes. Her father, born legally blind, once worked in a restaurant but is also on disability. They speak only Portuguese.
De Sousa's report card typically was littered with C's and D's, sometimes an F. On occasion, with the help of tutors and teachers, she got an A or B. In high school, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, she skipped class a lot, brushed aside teachers trying to help, and often missed tutoring sessions set up by Lesley University.
''I was just not a school person," De Sousa said. After becoming pregnant during her senior year, she dropped out. Ribeiro, one of the Lesley advisers, called her at home and helped her enroll in an alternative program, but she quit that school as well.
Now 23 and a mother of two, she earns roughly $8 an hour at a sports store in the mall and lives with her boyfriend in Chelsea.
Her brother, Dino, 21, a senior at St. Joseph's, nags her to go to college, but last year, she told Dino and Ribeiro to give up on her. She instead plans to focus on getting her children, ages 1 and 4, to college.
''The older people who know me think I'm dumb for not taking it. They're like, why not? That's free college right there," De Sousa said. ''I tell everybody, I wish I could give it to you so you could use it up. But I can't."
A success or failure?
The outcome so far has not been the vision the children's teachers and others had when Weiss offered the tuition. Not everyone went to college. The Harrington was supposed to soar after Weiss gave money for teacher training and other improvements, but enrollment dwindled and test scores stayed low. Two years ago, Cambridge shut it down.
''It's unbelievable with all the help and support these kids were given, that they just couldn't get it together a little more," said Marsha Mattison, who taught many of them in third grade and is retired.
But Weiss said he's not disappointed. The program in Cambridge has been the most successful so far of the cities he helped -- 88 percent of the Cambridge students graduated from high school, compared with 62 percent of the 112 sixth-graders in his first program in Philadelphia. Most Harrington students tried college; less than 40 percent of the Philadelphia students did. ''These kids have done a great job. They're productive members of society," Weiss said. ''That's what I want."
Also, the students had a higher college-going rate than their peers in Cambridge -- 82 percent, compared with the district average of roughly 70 percent for the class of 1991. The deadline on the tuition offer expires in three years. Next year, about 20 more of the Harrington students could earn a bachelor's degree. Five are still working on their GEDs, and last week, Mandissah Charles, whom the program had lost track of, was found, with the aid of Globe research.
Charles, who left Cambridge in fourth grade and moved several times in subsequent years, dropped out of high school in her senior year, took off with a boyfriend, and went to work. A month ago, she moved to North Carolina, the promise of free tuition a vague memory from childhood.
Ribeiro, though, never forgot her. He still has Charles's photograph on his bulletin board at Lesley University.
Now that Lesley knows her location, the university will work with Charles once more, getting her a tutor so that she can earn her GED and enroll in college. She wants to become a nurse.
She, like De Sousa and Sousa, still could run the distance with the football the man in the suit tossed out and called ''college" so many years ago. ''As soon as I dropped out of high school I thought, it's gone forever," Charles said. ''Now that I have the chance I'm going to go for it. I'm not going to let that pass me by again."