At first the idea of regularly staying after school until 8 in the evening seemed "cool" to 11-year-old Kaelah Williams, but then the reality sank in that she would have to give up her afternoons to read and do math problems for hours longer than her friends.
But the thin, spirited girl signed up for Higher Achievement anyway and in just two months she has made an exciting discovery while taking part in the after-school program at Collington Square Elementary/Middle School. "You can do learning and you don't have to be serious about it. You can have fun," Kaelah said.
Kaelah is one of about 40 fifth- and sixth-graders who go to Higher Achievement three days a week for a four-year program designed to support students through the difficult middle school years, when students are most vulnerable to peer pressure and city students are most likely to fall behind academically.
Started in Washington about 30 years ago as a nonprofit, Higher Achievement is designed for those in the academic middle who live in poor or struggling communities and are motivated to learn more. The program, now in two locations in Baltimore, chooses its "scholars," although the only real criterion is that the children want to participate.
For six weeks each summer, students age 9 through 13 take four academic classes and go on field trips and an overnight trip to a university. After school from September through May, they have tutors to help with homework, dinner, activity time, and more academic work with their mentors until 8 p.m.
On a recent evening at Collington Square, the scholars stood in a circle in a large round space on the school's warm second floor. Their mentors had just arrived and stood beside their scholars as they began their evening community meeting, including a chant they had written together with foot stomping and hand clapping. The group went over the meaning of the word for the week, gave people in the group a shout-out for doing something positive, and then did a math problem before breaking up into groups.
Each mentor is assigned three students to work with during their hour and a half together. The Higher Achievement curriculum can be downloaded off the Internet so the mentors don't have to make up a lesson each week.
Mentors are a key element in the design of the program because they give personal attention to the students. They also are trained to ask the students about their day and to share their experiences as well.
"We push our mentors to establish a relationship and then focus on the task," said Erin Hodge Williams, executive director of Higher Achievement in Baltimore. "Our young people are starving to learn and hear about worlds beyond their neighborhood."
The mentors say it is a new experience for them as well.
"I have experience with contractors," architect and mentor Paul Evenson said, smiling. "Unless you are a teacher, there is not much that can prepare you for an intense hour and a half" with the scholars.
But as he has gotten to know his students, he said, mentoring has gotten easier.
Mentors in Baltimore include a post-doctorate Johns Hopkins University student, the owner of an upscale downtown shoe store, an Associated Press reporter, a Baltimore County teacher and the president of the United Way.
But the mentors can provide another important role, Williams said. Often the mentors' perceptions of their communities and young people change after the program: They have renewed hope in the ability of people to change the course of their lives and they become advocates for the young people and the poor communities they serve.
"They see they can be part of the solution," Williams said.
In the knots of children and mentors scattered in classrooms of Collington Square, students laughed and squirmed as they worked on building a bridge out of paper, learned about fruits in different parts of the world and solved a word problem that asked them to calculate how far a shark was below the surface of the ocean.
Despite the intense work, students keep coming back. The attendance is between 85 percent and 87 percent each day at Collington Square, although it has lost about 15 of the 60 students it started with at the beginning of the school year.
Higher Achievement opened in Baltimore in two very different locations, on the west side and east side. The Collington Square school pulls from a poor neighborhood, while the students at Dr. Nathan A. Pitts-Ashburton Elementary/Middle School tend to come from more stable middle-class homes.
Higher Achievement in Washington has proved that it is working. Students generally gain a grade or two of learning over their years in the program, and 100 percent of its students last year got into college-preparatory high schools.
After just four months in Baltimore, Higher Achievement can't yet point to test score changes, but its leaders hope it is having an impact.
Jordan Brown, an 11-year-old chess player who loves math, said he wants Higher Achievement to help him accomplish something in life. Already, he said, the program has changed him.
"Sometimes I was bad," he said. He ran around the cafeteria and got angry when a teacher wouldn't call on him in school. The assistant director of the program at Collington, he said, "just kept talking to me." He told him that little things can become big things and now, Jordan said, he is better able to control himself.
Scholars also sense that if they weren't at Higher Achievement after school, they might be exposed to risky situations in their neighborhoods.
"I don't need to go outside because there is too much stuff happening in the world," Kaelah said.