At Findley Elementary School in Des Moines, each student can tell you the year in which he or she will graduate — not from high school, but from college. And along the hallways, you’ll see posters of students that picture them in careers such as teachers, lawyers and engineers. 

And every boy and girl there has a College Savings Iowa account to help get them there, along with an incentive program to earn up to $200 each year in college savings. 

Perhaps most importantly for these kids who live in one of Des Moines’ lowest-income neighborhoods, their teachers and their parents are sending them a consistent message: You can succeed.  

The program, known as the Dreamer Academy, was launched in October 2014 at Findley by the I Have a Dream Foundation. It focuses on identifying and addressing obstacles to children in low-income families in preparing for college. And it uses incentives to motivate students and their families to take a long-term approach to learning and success. 

Two classes of Findley students have already advanced to Harding Middle School, where they will continue in the Dreamer Academy through graduation at North High School. The Des Moines school district is also working with the foundation on preliminary plans to develop a second all-school program with another one of Harding’s feeder elementaries.   

Findley’s Dreamer program, one of the first all-school programs in the country, represents the most comprehensive approach yet for the 25-year-old initiative, which has grown from a program that began with a single class of first-graders at Moulton Elementary in 1990. There have been two subsequent cohorts of first-graders launched at two other schools — Oakridge and King elementaries. 

“In 25 years we reached 150 kids; we realized we needed to scale up this model to reach more kids,” said Emily Westergaard, the foundation’s executive director. With input from an advisory committee formed four years ago, the foundation devised a plan to significantly expand the program. 

“It takes what we have done on a small scale and expands it up,” she said. “Every student here is a Dreamer, and we will continue to serve them as they move up to Harding Middle School and North High School.” Approximately 350 Findley students and 100 Harding students now make up the Dreamer Academy. 

The Des Moines organization is one of 16 active independent affiliates of a national foundation formed in 1986 by a New York businessman named Eugene Lang. While speaking to a class at the grade school he had attended in Harlem, Lang was told that 60 percent of students at the school did not graduate, which inspired him to pledge to fund college for every student who graduated from high school. 

The organization has an impressive track record in Des Moines. Ninety-five percent of the students from the two earliest classes at Moulton and Oakridge graduated from high school, and about half of them went on to some kind of higher education. By comparison, about 65 percent of Des Moines elementary students graduate from high school and fewer than 10 percent go on to college. 

After three years operating as a Dreamer Academy, 70 percent of Findley’s students are now achieving typical academic growth, and the average Findley student is making 1½ years of academic growth each year, Westergaard said. At the same time, chronic absenteeism has dropped to less than 2 percent. 

“(Findley) is now arguably one of the best elementaries in the metro, even though it’s in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city,” she said. “All of these things are really now building into something that not many people in Des Moines know about.” 

A second all-school Dreamer Academy -- to be located at Cattell, Madison or Oak Park elementaries --- should launch within the next 12 to 18 months, Westergaard said.

One way in which students and their families are incentivized is through the college savings accounts. Each student can earn up to $200 more for his or her account each school year by meeting goals. For instance, keeping at least a 96 percent attendance rate earns them $10 for their account; having a parent attend a parent-teacher conference earns $20. 

At every morning’s all-school assembly, good behavior is recognized and rewarded. On the day I visited, for instance, the students heard they would be having a movie and ice cream party to celebrate that 96 percent of students had not been sent to the school office the previous month. 

“We’re celebrating milestones and incentivizing behaviors that will pay off in the long run,” Westergaard said. 

Another component of the program is a financial literacy management seminar for the families, to educate them about the cost of college and how to find money for it. The first year the school offered a seminar on the topic, between 40 and 50 parents attended. The next year, more than 100 parents came. “The families understand we’re a resource they can use,” Westergaard said. 

The school is also connecting with families to provide parents and other family members with high school completion classes in the evenings, and another partnership with Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity is building 25 new homes for families in the neighborhood as a way to promote greater stability for the students to stay at the school.

The Dreamer Academy program uses principles from the Academy of Urban School Leaders to help students stay in a learning mindset. For instance, teachers lead brief “centering” exercises during the school day to help students focus and relieve stress. 

“We know there’s some stress that may exist at home, but they know they can come to school and know what to expect,” said Tim Nelsen, the nonprofit’s development director.  

Through careful planning and an emphasis on community partnerships, the nonprofit has increased the number of students it’s serving tenfold while just doubling its operating budget, said Billy Kirby, the foundation’s academy manager. The organization operates on an annual budget of $700,000 with a staff of seven.  

The nonprofit is entirely funded by private contributions and receives no direct dollar investment from the Des Moines school district, Kirby noted. However, the district has a 15-year agreement to staff an additional administrator — the Dreamer Academy’s student dean Rick Miller — at Findley. 

Kirby currently coordinates relationships with more than 35 organizational partners, and he’s looking for more. 

“We want other nonprofits to work with us,” he said. One of its existing partnerships is with the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, which the foundation partnered with to start an after-school “Dream Laboratories” program focused on academic achievement. Kirby is now working to secure partners to organize a Lego league .

The effect the program has on the kids is remarkable, as I saw firsthand from meeting some of the students. One fifth-grade girl, who was probably all of 4½ feet tall, walked right up to me, introduced herself with a firm handshake and proceeded to tell me that she’s strongly considering enrolling at the University of Iowa when she graduates from high school. UI is among several college campus visits she’s already made during her time at Findley. 

“Hopefulness for the future is one of the most important factors for student success,” Kirby said. “Prior to starting this program, the rate of hopefulness among Findley students was 47 percent. After that first year, that score had jumped to 73 percent — the highest score of any of the Des Moines elementary schools.”