Students and administrators from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, participating in a White House-sponsored education symposium Wednesday, promoted a program that they say helps youths in the juvenile justice system, particularly African-Americans, find a new path through education.

"We've been doing this work now for decades as we've worked to support children who are first-time offenders," said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, "and we believe the model has the potential to help children and families around the country."


President Barack Obama launched the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in 2012 with the goal of improving education outcomes for all African-Americans, but with an emphasis on students at risk. Hrabowski chairs the initiative's commission; members include Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance.

Meeting at UMBC's campus in Catonsville, Hrabowski and others said the university's Choice Program annually serves 800 youths and families in the juvenile justice and court system as an alternative to in-school detention, suspension and expulsion. The program offers not only educational services, but also job training.

"Choice is UMBC's answer," said program director LaMar Davis. "Given the right tools and structure, our kids can be as successful as anybody."

Davis said Choice components are also used in a Baltimore Department of Social Services program for youths entering foster care, and in a pilot city elementary school program aimed at the 5 percent of children considered most likely to get suspended or expelled.

Choice, administered by UMBC's Shriver Center, recruits college graduates to serve in one-year fellowships in which they work with program staff to mentor youths.

Abdul Brannum, 20, a Baltimore resident and former Choice participant, said as a teen he was involved in incidents that left him with a criminal record and was referred by a caseworker to Choice. With the help of the program, he said, he has completed his first year of online college toward an associate's degree in business management. He said he wants to earn an MBA.

Imhotep Simba, 23, also participated in the Choice program while in the juvenile justice system for about three years. Now a senior at Coppin State, he recalled that Choice's College Night, in which students visited UMBC and Loyola University Maryland for a first-hand look at the college experience, resonated with him.

"It was just the exposure of an institution of higher learning — and the food was really great too," Simba said. "It was just the support that the program provided and exposing me to things that weren't the norm."