Want to make a difference post election? Mentor a middle schooler

Op-ed: Want to make a difference over the next four years? Mentor a middle schooler.

Growing up, I had an amazing mentor. Her name was Mom, and she had an unshakable vision for the future of her three daughters. Educated by nuns at a private Catholic school in Newark, N.J., my mom graduated from high school at 16 and went to college on a full scholarship. Mom made sure I never had to overcome a hurdle alone.

Of course, she never let me get off easy. Never. When school assigned me a paper to write, she assigned me two extras. When she chaperoned my class trip to the zoo, before we could look at an animal, she made my classmates and me read the descriptions on the plaques. Every. Single. Word.

This "mentorship" didn't seem lucky at the time, but over the years I've come to appreciate her high expectations — and the responsibilities that came with them.

In September, I moved here from Washington, D.C., to lead the local office of Higher Achievement, a rigorous after-school and summer academic program that closes the opportunity gap for middle school youth in underserved communities. Our methodology goes beyond academics: Social justice principles reinforced by mentorship and research-based curriculum expose our scholars to a wide range of learning experiences, including race, gender equality, poverty and community advocacy.

At Higher Achievement Baltimore, we serve approximately 180 scholars in our three achievement centers, located at Commodore John Rogers in Middle East, Dr. Carter G. Woodson in Cherry Hill, and Lakeland in Lakeland/Westport. Across the city, scholars are performing well below grade level and falling short of proficiency expectations according to state tests. Interventions are necessary to get scholars on track for high school, and, ultimately, college. There is so much potential in Baltimore. We can unleash it.

As a newcomer, I am struck by the inner strength of Baltimore's neighborhood communities. The mood, especially since the election, resonates with emotions I have carried with me throughout my life. We are all searching — searching for ways to make life better for our families and our neighbors, searching for signs of hope. I've been here only three months, and I already feel a sense of belonging.

Like many of my family and friends, I felt surrounded by somber clouds on Nov. 9. Those clouds were blown away in an instant when one of our scholars, a 13-year-old African American girl, began a sentence with the words, "When I am president..." It didn't matter how she finished the sentence. I was — momentarily, at least — elated.

The fifth through eighth graders in our midst are smarter, more sophisticated and more idealistic than I was at their age. I just wanted to get through a class trip without having to stop at every exhibit. Many of our 8th grade scholars will be voting during the 2020 election. Not long after that, today's middle schoolers will occupy the Oval Office.

Four years is the length of a presidential term. It also encompasses the duration of middle school. Since Election Day, many of us have ruminated on how to get more involved and ensure that the social justice principles we uphold each day are continuously woven through the fabric of the Baltimore community. Committing to mentoring our scholars throughout this pivotal time in all of our lives, and especially theirs, is a guaranteed way to make these next four years count. It's also a way of making these four years feel productive because, rather than wallowing in despair, you'll be spending time, every single week, with the inspiring future of our city and our country. You'll experience the hope that I am privileged to be surrounded by each day.

Traci Callender is the executive director at Higher Achievement Baltimore. Her email is tcallender@higherachievement.org.

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