They stared each other down those first few months in 2009. They were strangers, six boys in 8th and 9th grade from across Baltimore, brought together every Sunday. They didn’t know what the fledgling program Next One Up would be like.
But over the next several years, the crew would take classes together, play sports, go on college tours and sit together courtside at a New York Knicks game. They would become lifelong allies and brothers.
Winfield Hopkins V, who was in that inaugural group, remembers thinking he was going to be giving up his Sundays, but the West Baltimore teen knew he needed extra academic support. He went on to graduate from Goucher College in 2018 and now works for the Next One Up program as its director, helping the young men who came after him.
“We are small in terms of size, but big in terms of impact,” said Hopkins, now 24.
In a city where advocates and policymakers are looking for effective ways to help young men in poverty navigate school and build strong futures, the little known, highly-individualized program has made its mark. Next One Up brings together young men from grades 7 through 12 from different schools for long-term mentoring and coaching in academics, athletics and social development. Since its start 11 years ago, it has grown steadily, with an enrollment of 125 students today.
Every Sunday, the students meet for a three-class rotation: STEM, robotics and homework help. Afterward, they play a sport of their choice such as baseball, basketball or lacrosse. For many years, they gathered for these sessions at churches, Pratt Library branches and the 29th Street Community Center. Since 2019, they have met at the Gilman School in North Baltimore. The scholars also are offered preparation for the SAT, college counseling and a five-week summer camp.
The program focuses on students who have attendance issues, have experienced trauma, or need food, clothing or parental support. The program started and stayed small for several years and only has 22 alumni, but it’s expanded in recent years. Those alumni all graduated on time from high school, most to study at a two- or four-year college, and others to join the military or begin trade work.
“Not many people know about the great work that they do,” said Heather Darney, vice president of community relations for the Baltimore Ravens and executive director of the Ravens Foundation, which, as a charitable partner, gives annual financial support to Next One Up. The program also gets funding from other corporate and philanthropic donations.
“Balancing virtual school can be a lot, and it can be a lot on working parents,” Darney said, “but knowing there is a program filling in the gaps — and knowing that someone knowledgeable is in that kid’s corner — is important in so many ways.”
Rachel Duden, program officer for education at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which also supports Next One Up, called the group’s data around high school graduation and college matriculation impressive.
“But from working with them over the last six years,” Duden said, “it is also clear how much they care for the young men in the program and their families.”
The organization was founded by a former professional lacrosse player and American history teacher, Matt Hanna, as a way to help the students graduate high school and build strong futures.
In 2010, Baltimore’s high school graduation rate was 66%, compared to 86% statewide. While many educators looked to strategies inside schools to fix that, Hanna, who taught at Baltimore’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, said he thought other factors — like the attendance rate and transportation needs — were being overlooked.
“There needed to be a program with support outside of school hours,” he said, “a plan to put [the students] in camps for extracurricular activities and create a workforce plan for their futures.”
Hanna, a New York native, also remembered a high school friend and fellow athlete who had much potential. But he wound up sentenced to prison, while Hanna moved to Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins University, where he became captain of the lacrosse team.
Their different trajectories haunted Hanna. He always wondered what would have happened if his friend had gotten more help.
“It inspired me to teach amazing young men,” Hanna said.
Hanna also was energized by a poem, written by Marc Kelley Smith, called “Pull the Next One Up.” It resonated with Hanna because of its message: When one person gets to the top of the mountain, that person should reach back down and pull up the person behind him.
Letrey Bond, 19, of Park Heights, joined the program in 2015 when he was in 8th grade.
“Once you’re in the program, you’re in it for life,” Bond said.
He clearly remembers the first day, when he and the other middle schoolers were asked to wear a sweatshirt from the college of their choice — a strategy to get them thinking about college early.
“I was shy at first, but I stuck with it, and now to this day, we all still talk to each other,” said Bond, a freshman at Bowie State University.
To get into the Next One Up program, students must go through an application process, including writing an essay. Hanna also meets with prospective students and their families in their homes.
“This is a long-term commitment,” said Hanna, who eventually left teaching to run the program full-time. “[The students] are held accountable for 400 hours [of class time] a year for six years.”
With regular Thursday group calls, Hanna strives to stay in touch with his former scholars, even after they graduate.
“It’s a time to connect with each other, provide resources and connections to help each other out,” he said.
Sometimes, those resources are financial, like helping to pay for rent or some college costs.
One alum, Kevin Porter, 21, of Gwynn Oak, said the Next One Up program put down the deposit when he was accepted to Colgate University. He said the group helped him take control of his life.
“It’s given me purpose,” said Porter, who is now a college senior. “Coming from a single family household with a mother who worked all the time, I felt like I needed to push myself harder to reach academic heights. Having that support system made me feel like ‘Hey someone is pulling for you.’ ”
Porter recently accepted a job offer in real estate at a firm in Washington, D.C.
Since March, the Next One Up program has been working remotely to keep the connections going.
“It’s expected that [the scholars] help each other out and become mentors to those who come after them,” Hanna said.
Hanna and his team are now working to launch a program for young women in the city.
“I think the idea of pulling the next man up crosses gender roles,” Porter said. “I think I’m part of something greater and have the capacity to uplift other people.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her at @tatyanacturner.