Manor Hill Tavern set to open next month in Ellicott City

Howard schools' mentor program guides homeless youth

When you're in a transitional housing situation, “your first thought is not college and career readiness

The Howard County school system's College and Career Ready Mentor Program got a boost in its efforts to help homeless youth in college preparation after receiving a state grant for over $80,000 through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act.

According to Oakland Mills High School Pupil Personnel Worker Kevin Lee, the program entered its piloting phase in March 2015 at Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake high schools, where students were matched with school district mentors to prepare for high school graduation while also learning about college and career opportunities.

In an effort to continue the program's funding, Lee said he submitted a grant proposal to the Maryland State Department of Education, where the McKinney-Vento Act ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless youth. Fourteen of 24 Maryland public school systems received a grant this year, Lee said, with Howard County receiving $82,374.

"In Maryland, all of the public school systems can apply for a competitive grant process every year to receive funding to support initiatives around homeless education, like approving academics," Lee said. "We've always needed this grant funding to support some of the things we do for homeless students … It's been increasingly important because the number of homeless students have steadily increased over the last five or six years."

Lee's proposal listed the required three-year goals of the county school system, which included increasing attendance, academic achievement and high school graduation rates. By June 2017, Lee said, the Howard County Public School System plans to increase the homeless student attendance rate from 90.6 to 93 percent, while raising the percentage of students who perform satisfactory or better in English and mathematics from 70 to 75 percent.

Lee said they also plan to raise high school graduation rates with the help of the mentorship program through Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake.

"Between those two schools, we have about 35 homeless students this year who have been matched one-on-one with a trained college and career mentor, who are being paid an hourly rate," Lee said. "Mentors go through a training process with school counselors to learn a computer program called Naviance to help students assess their strengths, come up with different career goals as they get closer to graduation, exploring colleges, and learning about different jobs and industries."

Wilde Lake High School counselor Dana Scott said Naviance creates a curriculum for each student, starting in sixth grade, with different focuses as they progress through high school.

The program "helps shine a light on what's the next step for you," Scott said. "Where are you headed from here? What are you doing now? What are you good at? What are your interests? And then, what do we do with that information, and how can I help you get there?"

To help answer these questions, Scott said he volunteered as a mentor in the program.

"We know and the research shows that when you're in a transitional housing situation, your first thought is not college and career readiness; your first thought is more focused on the fundamentals, like food, clothing and shelter," he said. "By having a mentor, we can get them excited and help them to see, 'Hey, this is a way for you to pull yourself away from this situation. There's a path for you.' It's helping those kids identify that path using data that they've already gotten."

Oakland Mills counselor Kara Fick said she worked with Scott to develop the lessons for the mentors, with Naviance being the "one-stop place to go" for information.

"Once a student takes the assessment [through the program], it's saved to their account," Fick said. "As long as they're a student in our school system, that account follows them all throughout high school. It's supposed to build on itself, so when they're doing goal-setting as a ninth-grader, it saves that."

Although the program is just getting started, a Columbia mother shared her hopes as her daughter continues working with another mentor at Oakland Mills. In August, the mother said Lee reached out to her and her daughter, believing she was "a perfect fit for the program."

"…Of all the things that we've been through, my daughter was able to maintain her grades, which was an average B+," she said. "I think [the program] is awesome because it gives the kids an opportunity to see where their potential is. There are a lot of kids, maybe for reasons at home, they don't feel they have the potential. But, when you have a mentor with you and they get to know you well enough, they assist you in finding the path of your potential."

Her daughter agreed.

"I already knew what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to get there and get it done," said the student, who is pursuing her dream to become a nurse. "It's very helpful to my success in school because it helped me a lot. [My mentor] helped me get into the programs that I wanted to get into."

Scott said he hopes mentorship expands to other Howard County schools with higher transitional housing populations.

"When you're a kid in a homeless situation, you are going day-to-day," Scott said. "College planning requires thinking beyond day-to-day thinking. The idea with this program is you have someone who is stepping into this kid's life with an intentional focus on the beyond the day-to-day, which is huge. A lot of times, that's all it takes is someone extra just stepping in, saying, 'Hey, what are your thoughts on this?'"

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