Baltimore City

For at-risk students, veteran mentors are a phone call away

Equipped with a flip phone and 400 free minutes, each member of a group of truant students at Carver Vocational Technical High School knows that at any moment a call could come that changes his or her day — or life.

The Baltimore students are part of the Dropout and Truancy Prevention Network, a national program that partners them with wounded veterans who serve as mentors. The 15 students are chronically truant or tardy, behaviors that can lead to dropping out of school altogether.

The goal of the virtual mentoring program — the mentors are usually in other states; they maintain the relationship through phone conversations several times a week — is to steer students back on track by offering the perspective, or just the ear, of someone who understands more than most that showing up is half the battle.

"I would just not come to school because it just got boring, the same thing, every day," said Carver sophomore Robert Williams, who said he missed his entire first semester. "And when I did go to class, I was late. After lunch, I'd be out the side door."

Williams said he talks with his mentor, Gary Cooper, an Iraq war veteran who lives in Ohio and served in the Army for seven years, for hours about everything from the latest sports news to losing his father to diabetes on his 10th birthday.

"I'm just somebody they can talk to," Cooper said. "I just wanted to be there for somebody. If not me, who else?"

For Shamira McDougald, a freshman at Carver, there was no one else she'd rather talk to as she dealt with the death of her son, whom she delivered after going into premature labor at 26 weeks.

McDougald, who joined the program because she was chronically late, spoke to Cooper three times a week during her 16-day recovery.

"He gave me a whole bunch of advice and support," McDougald said. "I can talk to people around me, but I can really focus on talking to somebody if I don't know them."

The Dropout and Truancy Prevention Network gives each student a phone that delivers a wake-up call every morning. It also serves as a GPS tracking device that allows the students' whereabouts to be monitored. And it provides a mode of communication between students and adults designated to care about where they are.

The network was founded in 2010 by a former Marine Corps officer. Peter A. Gudmundsson said he was responding to a social need.

"There are hundreds of reasons kids don't go to school, but there are two reasons they do: They have an engaged, caring, consistent adult, and they have some accountability and lifestyle support," he said. "That's where the phone comes in."

As it tries to help the students, the program also seeks to provide much-needed employment to disabled or wounded veterans.

The GPS tracking sometimes gives the public pause, Gudmundsson said, but it's an integral part of the program because it allows mentors to intervene immediately.

Patterson and Benjamin Franklin high schools are to join Carver in participating in the 12-week program.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark signed on as the DTPN chair last month.

Clark said he believes success in places such as Baltimore could help "make a huge difference" in an epidemic that he said threatens the future of the United States as a superpower.

"It deals with the most fundamental problems in America," Clark said. "In the 21st century, we can't have 30 percent of our young people not completing high school. This has huge national security implications."