WALK INTO An Achievable Dream Academies in Newport News and you feel like you're in a large office building rather than a school.
A television flashes the latest Wall Street stock market reports, and company logos are on display.
Explore further and you discover the school teaches math, science, reading and writing. It also teaches confidence and life skills.
The walls are dotted with posters with inspirational words. One reads, "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." - Eleanor Roosevelt. Another near the entrance warns, "No headgear allowed unless it's a graduation cap."
An Achievable Dream is the brainchild of Walter Segaloff, a longtime Hampton Roads resident and businessman. He set out to prove that no matter how desperate a child's financial and home situation, he or she can learn.
The program is a partnership with Newport News Public Schools and the Hampton Roads business community, which helps fund the school. In addition to what Newport News Public Schools allocates per student, $2,200 is raised per student from individuals and businesses in the community.
The school is fully accredited by the state.
Ashby Kilgore, superintendent of Newport News Public Schools, has worked with Segaloff and his staff for more than seven years, beginning when she was assistant superintendent. She calls the school an incubator of good ideas.
It began in 1992 as a summer program in Newport News' troubled East End community that blossomed into an after-school and tutoring program. A full-time school for grades three through five was developed in 1994. Kindergarten through second grade was added in 1999. A middle and high school began in 2007.
Prior to the full-time upper school, students attended nearby schools, but remained in the program with a counselor and other outside instruction.
Now the nearly year-round school has 1,250 students who except for the school have the odds of success stacked against them.
According to Achievable Dream's records, 100 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 78 percent live in single-parent households, with 9 percent living with a guardian other than their parent. Some students might live with a parent, but they reside in a homeless shelter or with an extended family member.
"Many of our students have a single parent who works two to three jobs," Segaloff said. "They love their kids the same as you love yours but survival is No. 1. When that is the case a lot suffers."
The academies turn the odds around. The result is 66 percent of students who complete the program are accepted to four-year colleges while 25 percent go on to two-year colleges. The remaining 9 percent enter the military.
The school is designed in three sections, with An Achievable Dream Preparatory School for neighborhood students in kindergarten through second grade. An Achievable Dream Academy has third- to fifth-grade students who come from various areas of the city. The middle and high school students also are from different parts of the city.
Segaloff credits the schools' success to the support, both financially and emotionally, of the business community, the military and the Newport News Public School administrators. The dedicated staff and faculty also play a key role, he said.
A walk down the hallways indicates the Hampton Roads business community deserves much credit.
TowneBank Hall is the entrance to both lower and upper schools. The bank is also a major sponsor of the school's fundraisers - Run for the Dream 8K and Half Marathon and An Achievable Dream Tennis Ball.
Company and individual sponsors' names are outside the rooms. Smithfield Foods made a large contribution to the science lab, which could easily rival a lab at a university. Not only does Smithfield Foods provide the financial resources for science study, it provides speakers as well.
"We just had some of their people here to talk to the students about how they are developing low-fat pork products," Segaloff said.
Kathy Edwards, chief operating officer of the school, said such interaction is important.
"When people come in to talk, the students are getting exposure to careers they probably would never have heard of, much less considered," she said.
Students go outside the school to learn about different careers. John Biagas, president and chief executive officer of Bay Electric Co. Inc. in Newport News, said several have shadowed managers at his company during the summer.
"When young people meet and see people who are successful, they believe it is possible for their future," Kilgore said.
The school has an 8-1/2 hour day rather than the traditional 6 1/2 hour day at most area schools.
Mornings begin with a handshake and words of encouragement from Fort Eustis U.S. Army personnel. People from area businesses and the Newport News sheriff and police departments frequently join in the morning routine as well.
Segaloff asked to have the soldiers participate because character education is a main component of the daily curriculum.
"Who better to promote character development, morals and being prepared than the Army?" he said.
Lee Vreeland, director of education and student services, said teaching morals and ethics for good character development is a huge challenge.
"Most of our kids are exposed to a community where there is a breakdown in social standards," Vreeland said. "For them it can be an eternal conflict between what we teach here and what they are seeing around them when they leave."
Students and their caregivers are required to sign a contract stating their duties to the school. The caregiver contract includes making sure a student has completed homework and asking about the day.
The student contract is similar. It requires a female student not to get pregnant, and a male student's contract prohibits him from getting a girl pregnant.
Edwards could only recall one or two students in the program that were involved in a pregnancy.
"That contract is great," Biagas said. "It really gives the kids a chance. It shows that both at home and at school they have to take their education seriously."
Social education is an important element at the school. Segaloff said teachers emphasize peaceful conflict resolution and handling personal finances.
Formal dining etiquette is taught.
"Once I had a young man who interviewed for an internship with H&R Block," Segaloff said. "They took him out to lunch at a nice restaurant. He told me it was great to know which fork to use for his salad. He said he felt very comfortable."
Proper English and good elocution are important.
Katelyn Brownlee, a high school junior at the school, said, "For example, we have to say the instead of duh."
Around the school there are signs promoting "Speaking Green." The term was developed by Segaloff and the staff.
"Green is the color of money, that is where it comes from," he said.
The school trademarked the term. Edwards said that visitors from school systems around the country often comment positively about the phrase.
For students struggling academically, there is Saturday school, Segaloff said.
All students receive tennis lessons in the school's indoor tennis center - which has resulted in several college tennis scholarships. The center is a partnership between the school and the Newport News Parks and Recreation Department, which uses the center in the evenings and on weekends.
"Tennis is a ladies' and gentlemen's sport, something played at country clubs, that is why we teach it," Segaloff said, although he admitted he has never played the game.
"And it is not a contact sport," Edwards said.
Healthy living is included in the curriculum to underscore the idea of a well-rounded life. A clinic is staffed by registered nurses from Riverside Health System who do more than just treat the ordinary playground injury. They work with caregivers of children who have chronic problems that cause them to be absent from school.
"Recently we had a child who was absent a lot due to illness. The nurse visited the home and found mold that was causing a lot of her problems. The mold was removed and she has been free of illness," Segaloff said.
To encourage the graduates to go to college, Segaloff and the staff sought out college administrators and influential college alumni.
The school has working relationships with colleges such as Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University.
With the help of John Lawson, president and chief executive officer of W.M. Jordan Construction Co. in Newport News, more students are headed to Virginia Tech.
A graduate of Virginia Tech, Lawson is a member of the Board of Visitors for the Blacksburg university. He said Tech is working with An Achievable Dream as it attempts to diversify its student body. He has escorted several students to tour the campus. Four students are now attending the school.
Several companies in Hampton Roads contribute to scholarship funds for Achievable Dream graduates. Some companies adopt an entire class. Bay Electrical Co., Dollar Tree Stores, Ferguson Enterprises, Chesapeake Bay Seafood House Restaurants, W.M. Jordan and Smithfield Foods have sponsored graduating classes.
Each graduate receives a scholarship of $2,000 for each year he or she is in college. With an average of 50 students in a grade level, class sponsorships can cost about $400,000.
The class sponsor is announced each year at the Tennis Ball when graduating seniors walk in dressed in academic regalia to "Pomp and Circumstance."
Edwards said students also receive help applying for college financial aid.
"We have a policy that we never allow a student to drop out of college for financial reasons," she said.
To improve students' chances to get into college, the staff recognized college entrance exams scores needed to be raised. They sought the help of Kaplan Test Prep, a program that tutors students for the tests.
At first students learned from the Kaplan faculty. However, the staff felt it would be better if the students learned from the regular faculty, so Segaloff and the staff sent several faculty members to Kaplan's tutor training program.
Learning isn't just for the students. Classes taught by instructors from Thomas Nelson Community College are available to parents in the evening. Edwards said 400 parents are enrolled.
Franklin Roberson is a graduate of Achievable Dream. He recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and came to visit Achievable Dream's board of directors to thank them. Board Member Alan Diamonstein described Roberson as "a very impressive young man."
Michael Banks from the class of 2001 went on to graduate from the University of Virginia. He is now an assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel in Newport News.
At the 2010 Tennis Ball, Banks spoke to the crowd, saying it was "a humbling honor to talk about the great impact Achievable Dream has on my life."
He described it as a successful marriage between public and private enterprises that combine visions of a greater and more productive community through investment in the lives of youth.
For Lawson the school comes down to one word - "inspirational."
By Susan Smigielski Acker