Keeping kids in school is one of the goals


First, there are the statistics.

About 14 percent of Baltimore city high school students drop out each year. Almost 9 percent of girls in the city get pregnant

before they clear their teen-age years. SAT test scores are dropping, with verbal scores as low as they've been in 20 years.

Then there are the kids themselves.

"I want to get through school because when I grow up, I want to be somebody," said Aisha Smith, 12, who attends Booker T. Washington Junior High.

"I want to be a doctor that delivers babies," said Nicole Platt, 14, also of Booker T. "But I'm not going to have a baby until I'm 30-something."

And, finally, there are the adults trying to prevent the kids from becoming the statistics.

"It's really going to hurt all of us if we don't have an educated generation," said Dorothy Rostkowski. "I don't want to be 70 years old and hobbling around some day and have one of them knock me over for my Social Security check."

The 27-year-old T. Rowe Price employee is one of about 200 volunteers in an ambitious program designed to save inner city youth from the social ills that threaten to engulf them. But rather than attacking a problem that can seem overwhelming if taken in one huge chunk, they pick away at it on a one-student-at-a-time basis. Each of the adults, who are members of local businesses or community groups, is paired with a middle school student to actas a mentor -- which translates into role model, trusted confidante and, mostly, special friend.

The program is called RAISE, for Raising Ambition Instills Self-Esteem. Now in its third year, it is a local refinement of millionaire Eugene Lang's "I Have A Dream" program, in which he adopted a sixth-grade class in Harlem with the promise that he would pay for the college education of all those who completed high school.

While part of RAISE works much like Mr. Lang's program -- companies and community groups adopt classrooms at 13 inner city schools to provide after-school tutoring and other activities -- it does not include the promise of college tuition. However, RAISE has extended the concept to an individual basis its emphasis on mentoring.

"One of the things we've learned is that the reason many students drop out is because they didn't have an adult who cared," said Richard Rowe, RAISE project director. "We're working with some of the highest risk kids in the city, and many of them come from weak, fragmented support systems.

"They have had many relationships that have been disappointments, adults coming and going, promises and expectations not fulfilled," he said. "There's a lot of suspicion and disbelief."

But the hope is that the youngsters' initial suspicions will be overcome with time -- RAISE mentors are required to commit to at least a year, and most seem to "re-enlist" after that. And companies and community groups that adopt classrooms are required to follow through for seven years.

Mentor Brian Kane, 28, and his "mentee" Marty Brown, 13, have been together for about 1 1/2 years, with no foreseeable end to their relationship. They met at several group activities sponsored by RAISE, then picked each other when mentoring was introduced at Marty's school.

"He was a real nice guy. He always understood what I was saying," said the garrulous Marty.

"It was a little awkward at first, because I'm used to dealing just with people my age," said Mr. Kane, an accountant at T. Rowe Price. "But with him, it's real easy. He's so funny and outgoing. He's never at a loss for conversation."

Marty does fairly well at school, has a supportive family and thus isn't as "at risk" as perhaps many others in the program. But everyone can use a friend.

"He has a little trouble with math, so, being an accountant, I try to help him with that," Mr. Kane said.

When they venture out together, however, it's not always Mr. Kane leading Marty around.

"The first time we got together, we went to the Enoch Pratt library, and he showed me the children's section," Mr. Kane recalled.

"If I go somewhere with my parents, like, they'll be telling me not to do this, not to do that," Marty said. "But Brian lets me do stuff. Like, if I'm joking around with my friends, my mother might tell me to sit down, but Brian won't. But he doesn't let me get get out of line, either."

That is much of the appeal of a mentor -- he or she is an adult, but not a parent.

"My mentor is 28, but she acts like 20," said 12-year-old Aisha. "We go into Washington together, we went to a restaurant down at the harbor last night, we've gone skating. She's like a big sister."

Dorothy Rostkowski was matched with her mentee because of their shared heritage. Co-workers told her about a youngster in one of the after-school program who had recently moved here from Poland and didn't speak much English.

"He was so lost," remembered Ms. Rostkowski, who works in T. Rowe's shareholders services program. "But now, I've noticed that his spoken English has gotten so much better.

In addition to helping her mentee, Jozef Zajaczkowski, with his schoolwork, she often takes him to movies and sporting events. Mainly, she said, she wants to make sure he doesn't fall through the cracks of the school system.

"It really makes a difference to have someone caring and looking out for the welfare of these kids," she said. "We just want to show them there can be a future, they don't have to be valedictorian as long as they finish."

"I want to see her through college," Pam Widgeon, 45, said of her mentee, Shirelle Dickerson, 13, who attends Booker T. "I want to see that she's not another statistic, to not [get] into drugs, to be a leader and not a follower."

Ms. Widgeon, who works as a victim's specialist in the State's Attorney's office, became involved in RAISE through her church, New Shiloh Baptist.

Her mentee isn't crazy about school, or the extra tutoring that comes with RAISE, but she thinks she'll stick with the program anyway.

"Because," Shirelle said, "I want to keep my mentor."

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