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Dream Scholars Mix Nature with Math
Monday, December 20, 2021


“One, two, three—eyes on me,” Illiah Pfau told two dozen first-graders standing at the edge of the woods in Bellevue.

“We’re going into the woods to play some games and we will weather the weather whether it rains or snows,” he added.

The youngsters were among 40 students from Alturas, Bellevue and Hailey elementary schools that are taking part in the new I Have a Dream class. They followed Mr. Papaya, as they have nicknamed him,  across a board spanning an empty creek and into a clearing as storm clouds threatened in the north.

A couple boys struck up a sword fight with sticks they found along the way, and a girl plucked an insect off the ground that she proudly proclaimed to be a daddy long legs.

The students are the second group to take part in I Have a Dream Foundation-Idaho, which ias modeled after a national program designed to provide academic and other support for students who might otherwise end up dropping out of school as they get older.

The original students, who were third-graders when the program started, are high school seniors now. And they’re about to go off to college or career school with the help of scholarships that were promised them for successfully completing the program eight years ago.

“We started with the 12th graders when they were in fourth grade. We wanted to start earlier this time because we know how important it is to reach youngsters early,” said Laura Rose-Lewis, the executive director of the Wood River Valley program.

“We hope to add an additional 20 when COVID settles down because we realize that some of our second-graders have fallen behind because they missed first grade because of the pandemic,” she added.

The first-graders just finished a literacy assessment that will help tutors and teachers gauge where they  are on the literacy scale. Literacy teams will then work on reading and math skills with two or three students at a time who are at the same level.

They’ll do so with the help of a New York group affiliated with the National I Have a Dream organization, which has offered to support half of the Wood River Valley youngsters remotely free of charge.

“Many of the students are very behind because they weren’t in school because of the pandemic,” said Rose-Lewis. “They missed kindergarten because of the pandemic so this is brand new for them.”

Kris Stoffer works with the children to build compassion and empathy, while teaching them how to resolve conflicts. She also teaches them about language that is okay to use when communicating with others.

“We have 56 students graduating in May—they’re planning for college and career with the help of Millie Ready and Kris Stoffer. And some of them are working as volunteers to help the younger kids,” said Rose-Lewis.

Each day after school the Dream Scholars check into one of two trailers behind Bellevue Elementary for an hour’s worth of tutoring combined with art and other projects. A group from the United States Tennis Association recently taught them how to play tennis, even giving each youngster a tennis racquet.

And once a week 20 students at a time venture to the Idaho Base Camp property at the edge of Bellevue to play and run in the woods. They skip rocks, go sledding or snowshoeing, wax autumn leaves and feed the chickens and goats on the property.

“It gives them an opportunity to be out in nature. It grows their sense of connection to our surroundings. It grows their sense of belonging to where they’re at,” said Program Coordinator Lisa Dirksmeier.

This particular day is devoted to playing hide and seek in the woods.

“I need you guys to go hide, but there’s one rule: You have to be able to see me,” program leader Whitney Gershater tells them.

“Some of these kids don’t get an outdoor experience. They either go home from school or they go to another building from school,” said Pfau. “So, this gives them a place where they can run and be free and be kids.”


  • 90 percent of Dream Scholars complete high school, compared to 70 percent of their low-income peers.
  • 89 percent of Dream Scholars will be the first in their families to go to college or other post-secondary education.
  • Dream Scholars are three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their low-income peers.

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