A Portland-based assistance program for poverty-stricken and at-risk students aims its expansion into Southern Oregon at Jackson County's most affluent school district.

A Portland-based assistance program for poverty-stricken and at-risk students aims its expansion into Southern Oregon at Jackson County's most affluent school district.

"I Have a Dream" Foundation Oregon secured a $200,000 grant this month from Oregon Community Foundation. The money will be awarded once local residents raise $500,000 toward implementing its program in the Ashland School District, said Karen Hill, executive director of "I Have a Dream" Foundation.

A $100,000 donation from Duane Smith, former Ashland resident and owner of Lithia Springs Inn, will kick-start the effort.

Smith approached "I Have a Dream" Foundation with his vision of giving poor children in Ashland a leg up. The foundation likely can start mentoring and tutoring about 30 Ashland third-graders by the fall or winter before expanding to other local towns with community support.

"We have to start somewhere," Smith said. "I'm simply trying to seed a local movement in each town."

Based on a New York program, "I Have a Dream" Foundation Oregon formed in 1990 to help children from low-income communities graduate from high school with partial college scholarships or with skills for rewarding employment. Year-round projects start in third grade with the "adoption" of 50 to 100 students at a struggling elementary school. Currently, 300 kids are served in Portland and Forest Grove.

But to work in Ashland schools, "I Have a Dream" Foundation must change its model of identifying needy children, Hill said. Previously, the nonprofit organization could count on entire classes of students in certain metro-area elementary schools living below the poverty line. In Ashland, the approach would be much more individualized, Hill said.

"There are lots of poor kids in Ashland," Hill said.

Fewer Ashland students, however, qualify for free or reduced lunches compared with their counterparts in almost every other county school district. Only students in tiny Pinehurst School District qualify at lower rates than Ashland's 26 percent, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Yet Oregon Community Foundation had no qualms about signing off on a grant for "I Have a Dream" programs in Ashland, said Kathleen Cornett, OCF's vice president for programs. According to a 2003 study commissioned for OCF's Reed and Carolee Fund, the county's highest overall poverty rates are in White City and Ashland, she said.

Smith, a 67-year-old former teacher in the Phoenix-Talent area, also cites a high number of single-parent households as a risk factor for Ashland youth. The number of scholarships provided by the Ashland Family YMCA is another indicator that the city's poorer kids need help, he said.

Ashland students, at 79 percent, already attend college in higher numbers than any other high-school graduates countywide. Crater High School in 2005 reported the lowest number of college-bound seniors, 45 percent. College attendance rates among "I Have a Dream" Foundation's most recent graduates were 62 and 57 percent from two northeast Portland schools.

Smith said he anticipates funds for Ashland's arm of "I Have a Dream" will come from just a few large donations. A fundraiser is tentatively slated for August at Lithia Springs Inn.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.