Keeping the focus on school


Every Wednesday, a group of fifth-grade girls at Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School get together for an afternoon session with My Sister's Circle, a mentoring program run by women for girls. They play math games, do arts and crafts - and sometimes discuss boys and sex.

"We talk about stuff that we can't talk about with other people," said Jasmine Peterson, 11, a short-haired girl who dots her i's with circles. "Like how some boys carry diseases. That you should use protection. And wait till a certain age" to have sex.

Surprising talk for someone so young, perhaps. But to Principal Irma Johnson, the program is the only help some of her pupils will get to avoid the fate of many of their peers: becoming teenage mothers.

"I saw young girls that had a lot of potential pushing a baby carriage and not living up to their potential," Johnson said.

Five years ago, tired of seeing former pupils give birth before graduating from high school, Johnson turned to Heather Harvison, a friend's daughter, to design a program to keep fifth-grade girls focused on academics. Harvison's mother, the pastor of a nondenominational Christian church, had held clothing drives for the school.

In the beginning, My Sister's Circle consisted of Harvison and a handful of girls getting together to read and talk about books. Today, it is a nonprofit organization that serves more than 50 girls. Participants are usually academically gifted pupils recommended by teachers to the program.

Mentors meet once a week with groups at Dallas F. Nicholas and three other elementary schools: Abbottston, Margaret Brent and Barclay. They also take the pupils on trips to see plays at Center Stage, have picnics or go bowling.

After elementary school, pupils who remain in the program are assigned to a woman who commits to mentoring them throughout middle school. None of the girls in the program has dropped out of school, and none has become pregnant.

"It's so effective," Harvison said. "I think it's because it's relationship-based."

Harvison, a Baltimore native with a background in public relations and education, is the organization's executive director. In addition to applying for grants to support the program, she also seeks resources from private schools in the region.

Older private school students, for example, tutor the girls in My Sister's Circle. Harvison helps city pupils apply for scholarships if they are interested in attending private schools.

Antoinella Peterkin, 13, a freshman at City College, said the program helped her keep her grades up and opened her eyes to new perspectives, including that of her mentor, Kyla Donovan, a staffing specialist for Sylvan Learning Center.

"I changed into a different person," Antoinella said.

As for Jasmine, she said the program has helped her stand up to social pressures. Although she is acquainted with girls who are sexually active, she says she doesn't plan to follow suit.

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