High school graduation rates in Baltimore City have been steadily climbing since 2007, reaching a rate of approximately 70 percent in 2012. While this is lower than the overall state-wide rate, it compares favorably with other cities. That is good news. The not so good news is that only about 40 percent of those who graduate from Baltimore City schools are applying to two and four-year colleges, and of those who enter the ranks of college, only 11 percent are graduating. In today's highly skilled world, economic and professional opportunities, and personal satisfaction, are greatly reduced for those who do not make it to college and graduate.
Many reasons are given for the low application and even lower college graduation rate, chief among them that high school students simply are academically and emotionally unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Three-fourths of Baltimore City students who enroll in college require remediation to bring their skills up to par so they have a chance of succeeding at college. This leads to the more fundamental question of whether it is our schools that are failing these students in terms of college readiness, or whether sociological, economic, environmental or other factors are setting a child's trajectory even before they enter the doors of their high school.
Thread (formally known as Incentive Mentoring Program) was started by Sarah Hemminger in 2004 after she graduated from college. Importantly, the program does not seek the over-achieving, high performing student but instead recruits students with low GPAs and chronic absenteeism, and who are facing significant psycho-sociological challenges such as poverty, learning disabilities, criminal records and/or abuse. Students participate in a 10-year program, beginning when they are freshman at high school and continuing after graduation. The program selects a cohort of 16 students each year from each of three city high schools. Each student is matched to a "family" of up to eight volunteer mentors (from a bank of 775) who become actively involved in the student's life both in and out of school. The 207 students currently in the program participate in mandatory one-on-one tutoring sessions multiple times a week as well as SAT prep sessions and exam reviews, and each commits to monthly service projects in Baltimore.
A similar program is My Sister's Circle, begun by Heather Harvison in 2000. Recognizing the "benign neglect" young girls often face in co-educational settings, the program focuses exclusively on girls entering middle school and mentors them through high school, again by selecting those students who are in the greatest need (90 percent are from single parent households) and are underperforming academically. One hundred mentors support 140 girls, exposing them to a broad base of cultural experiences, internships and career paths.
The results in both programs have been spectacular. Thread boasts a high school graduation rate of 100 percent, a 96 percent college acceptance rate and an 80 percent graduation rate. My Sister's Circle has had similar results.
So, what lessons can we learn from such programs? First, we should recognize that it is unfair to demand that our schools alone be responsible for educating our children and preparing them for college and life. There must be engagement from all of us — family, friends, peers and society as a whole — to work toward the goal of preparing our most precious commodity, our children, with the tools to be successful and productive adults. Second, these programs starkly show that any child, regardless of his or her background or circumstances, is capable of succeeding with the right amount of mentoring and encouragement. Thread and My Sister's Circle are working with some of our most traumatized and neglected children yet achieving amazing results. And they are doing it through intense and relentless effort to help the student in all facets of his or her life, not only through high school, but beyond.
When I was Baltimore's state's attorney, I was an advocate for developing systems and programs that kept our youth out of the criminal courts because no amount of court reform will turn around the lives of many of our juveniles after they have reached the point where they are caught up in the juvenile justice system. And I still am. We have a responsibility to support programs like Thread and My Sister's Circle, which recognize the need for early intervention by reaching out to students at a young age and providing mentoring where it is most needed — at home and in the neighborhoods where city children live. They are having a measurable, positive impact on the lives of the youth they are serving, and as a result, are providing a bright and productive future not only for them, but also for our growth as a city.
Gregg Bernstein is a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP and a former Baltimore City state's attorney. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.