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In return visit, Cummings brings job, mentoring resources to Forest Park students

"I promised you I would return, and here I am," Congressman Cummings to Forest Park High School

The scene in Forest Park High School's learning center Tuesday seemed like many others that occurred in the months following April's unrest in Baltimore as concerned leaders engaged young people, assuring them that they are being heard.

But Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who gathered representatives from more than a dozen education and community organizations at the school, said the group was there to do more than listen.

"The reason there are so many people who were concerned is because we love you, and we realize that it's now your turn to make a difference," Cummings told students.

The visit was a follow-up to a roundtable meeting Cummings held with students at the Northwest Baltimore school last spring after the rioting in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who died of injuries he sustained while in police custody.

"I promised you I would return, and here I am," said Cummings, a Democrat who represents parts of the city. "I brought a lot of friends with me."

Representatives from the Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities, Big Bothers/ Big Sisters, the NAACP and other organizations attended Tuesday's gathering to sign students up for vocational, educational and job opportunities designed to help them on their career and college tracks.

Representatives talked to the students, brought information about programs and encouraged the teens to enroll on the spot.

Calvin Wise, Johns Hopkins's assistant director of admissions, said in-person contact is critical to engaging and encouraging students.

"It's important for them to know that Hopkins can be an option," Wise said. "But preparation is key, and making sure we click that light switch early."

Shawnte Jacobs, a senior at Forest Park, visited the Big Brothers, Big Sisters table to learn more about starting a mentoring program. She said she mentored children this summer and "feeling like I changed someone's life is really important."

Jacobs attended the roundtable with Cummings last school year, and said she thought, "OK ... let's see what's going to happen."

"Now I can start trusting him," she said Tuesday, "because he's actually doing what he's saying."

Baltimore city schools CEO Gregory Thornton also commended Cummings, noting that a lot of prominent people reached out to students following the unrest, but "a lot of folks make promises they don't keep."

Some speakers were there to offer not only job and mentoring help, but also a renewed commitment to young people.

Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, chief of the department's community partnership division, told students that officers have recommitted themselves to the motto, "serve and protect."

"Maybe we didn't protect you enough, not just from yourselves [and] from each other, but maybe from your enemies — some enemies who look just like me," Russell said.

He said in the past, officers didn't fight hard enough when programs such as the Police Activity League were taken out of schools. He said the department has revived youth outreach initiatives such as Explorers and Officer Friendly.

"We should have never left," Russell said. "We're coming back — whether you like it or not."

Jeremy Arnold, a senior, said he was struck by Russell's candor.

"He really did a number on some of the kids who would be surprised they're coming back in the schools," Arnold said. "Today was about the kids — coming back, giving back."

Many students said the event added to positive momentum at Forest Park, a school where 23 percent are special education students, 25 percent are in foster care or group homes and 93 percent qualify for free-and-reduced meals under income guidelines.

The school's JROTC program is widely considered one of the best in the state, and this year Forest Park was designated a "community school" — part of the initiative that brings additional services and resources to the school and community.

Keysha Fearon, the school's College Bound specialist, said Tuesday's gathering was invaluable in aiding the school's evolution. She said the groups that sent representatives to talk to students "were the same places I've been trying to get in here to help me help my kids."

"For them to be in here, to see that Forest Park is a great school, is a great help," she said.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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