What works in Pittsburgh

The Baltimore Sun

PITTSBURGH -- This is a What Works column.

Those of you who are regulars will recognize that as my series spotlighting programs that have proved effective in tackling poverty, miseducation, fatherlessness and other problems that blight the prospects of black kids. In the year and change the series has been under way, it has taken me around the country, from Harlem to Austin to Atlanta. Today, it brings me to this city of bridges and rivers. More specifically, it brings me to the Crossroads Foundation.

Crossroads was founded in 1988 to help funnel at-risk Catholic elementary school kids into Catholic high schools. Funded by private donations, it serves children (whether they are Catholic are not) whose families cannot afford the jump in tuition (from about $1,000 a year to as much as $7,000) the high schools represent.

Applicants are screened, says Executive Director Veronica Morgan-Lee, by a number of criteria. One is need. Crossroads kids usually qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. A second is academics. Crossroads tends to reject kids who have been academic stars on the theory that schools will offer them scholarships; it looks for kids who are motivated but who have not yet performed to their full potential. A third criterion is support. Crossroads seeks kids whose parents (parent, singular, in too many cases) will be active and involved partners.

And finally, says Ms. Morgan-Lee, Crossroads asks a question: If a particular kid is rejected and has to go to public school, "would they survive? Would the streets get them if we didn't take them?"

If the answers are no and yes, chances are good that child is coming to Crossroads. What will she get? Heavily subsidized tuition. Tutoring. Summer skills workshops. Individual and family counseling. Sexual abstinence programs. College prep. Intercession when problems crop up with the school.

They also get Mister Charles. "Whatever a kid needs to be successful," Charles Shealey says, "that's what we do."

You would not want to walk the halls of any Crossroads school with its youth advocacy mentoring specialist if you were in a hurry. He knows everyone and everyone knows him, and there are hugs and handshakes and laughs all around - and you have to believe this sense of connection is part of what makes Crossroads work, part of the reason it says 100 percent of its kids graduate from high school and go on to college.

We're talking about students from places where that sort of success would not be expected. Brett Pippens, 14, says his neighborhood is so bad, "the mailman doesn't want to come past, the bus doesn't want to pick up kids from the corner."

Renee DiNinno, who is 17 (and one of roughly 30 percent of Crossroads kids who are not black), says that in her neighborhood, you see "abandoned houses, people just on the sidewalk doing nothing. ... It's just old and broken down. People are just sitting there watching you."

And yet Brett is planning a career in engineering or law, Renee wants to be a nurse, and Kayla Longo, 17, will be the first in her family to attend college. "Makes me feel like I'm actually going somewhere," she says. "I have a lot of people in my family that didn't even graduate high school. It makes me feel like I know what I want to do with my life and I want to make sure I get there."

Josh Bray, who is 18, knows what he wants, too: forensic science. People in his neighborhood, he says, tell him it won't happen, tell him he's never leaving the neighborhood unless it's via the usual routes: a cell or a cemetery.

Thanks to Crossroads, he has an answer. "I laugh at 'em," he says, "and tell 'em, 'Wait and see.'"

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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