Sarah is building non-traditional families in order to radically reconfigure the level of support disenfranchised students have available to them.
Sarah is building non-traditional families in order to radically reconfigure the level of support disenfranchised students have available to them.
Sarah begins by surrounding underperforming students – those in the bottom of their class, with a history of truancy and behavioral problems during their ninth grade year – with a group of up to eight volunteers, consisting primarily of undergraduate and graduate students. United by the commitment to never give up on a student, volunteers connect students and their biological families to community resources, by coordinating clothing, furniture and appliance donations, home renovations and public assistance enrollment. Like Teach For America, Incentive Mentoring Program is designed to leave a lasting imprint not only on the students it serves, but also on the volunteers who take part – an imprint that they will carry with them throughout their personal and professional lives. By having undergraduate and graduate volunteers build lasting relationships with both kids and community leaders, IMP has managed to transcend racial and socio-economic boundaries within Baltimore, paving the way for a wide variety of broader systemic shifts.
IMP currently serves 127 students in two local high schools, having more than doubled in the last two years. To date, the organization has worked with more than 900 volunteers in the Baltimore community and looks forward to growing to other cities with highly engaged college student populations, including New Haven, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New York and other similarly situated cities. Having entered the program at-risk of failing to graduate high school, 100% of the students have graduated high school or the equivalent and have been accepted to college; of those in the oldest cohort, 66% are on track to receive a college degree by the end of 2013.
As the middle class left for the suburbs, however, these neighborhoods experienced a dramatic rise in concentrated poverty. In Baltimore, for instance, one-third of children live in single-parent families and one in four residents lives in poverty. The drastic decrease in population created roughly 16,000 vacant homes between 1950-2000, producing a visible urban blight. The situation there has played out in dozens of cities across the country: over 20% of the population in Detroit, New Haven, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis live in concentrated areas of poverty. Despite various efforts to tackle the problem, rates have continued to rise; of the 50 largest cities in the US, 44 experienced increases in child poverty rates between 2005 and 2011. The result has had a profound effect on our education system: many of today's schools remain almost as racially homogenous as they were before Brown vs. Board of Education, and more so socio-economically. In Baltimore city schools, 87% of students are African American and 84% are on free or reduced lunch.
Countless studies have pointed to the effects of concentrated poverty and an absence of positive role models on children's development, producing dramatically higher rates of depression, juvenile incarceration and criminal activity, teen pregnancy, and poor educational outcomes. Children growing up without the help of a supportive family must worry about meeting their own physiological, safety and belonging needs instead of focusing on academic achievement, character development and contributions to society.
These challenges have hardly gone unnoticed: tackling inequality is now one of the driving forces behind today's education debate. For more than a decade, the education reform movement has been defined by high expectations and a refusal, in the words of many, to "let zip codes define destiny." However, those efforts have focused largely on what can be done within the confines of a school – extending the school-day, exerting tight disciplinary control, establishing rigorous academic tutoring and data-monitoring – based on the belief that influencing a child's home-life is outside a teacher’s or school's reach.
Yet studies have been equally clear that the key protective factors for ensuring a child develops resiliency are whether or not they have a strong bond with a caring adult and connectedness to their school community, indicating that the problem is less one of poor academic standards, than it is a lack of human capital.
In Baltimore, as in many cities home to prestigious colleges and universities, there is a large transient population. A significant percentage of residents move to the city to attend or work in higher education. Because these students and faculty originate from diverse regional, ethnic and national backgrounds, unless they make a strong connection both personally and professionally to their college town, they often return to their permanent home after finishing their tenures, degrees or residencies. This contributes to a continued professional, financial and intellectual exodus.
Missing from the education debate is the basic question of how to restore the same level of social support that once existed within a community, without turning back the clock or undermining the progress of the civil rights era. Even well-known efforts like the Harlem Children's Zone, and similar attempts to lift up entire neighborhoods, have focused largely on expanding social services and deepening programmatic interventions. When it comes to taking care of at-risk kids, few have attempted to blur, or altogether abandon, the line between the personal and the professional, having no other way to respect the personal boundaries and needs for self-care among staff or volunteers and believing such a choice to be fundamentally at odds with the ability to sustain an organization.
Sarah set out first to establish a set of proof-points: demonstrating that generational poverty could be overcome by simply engaging existing human capital, even under the most trying circumstances. The basic building block of the organization is what is known as the IMP family: a group of up to eight volunteers, beginning with mostly undergraduate and graduate students from the Johns Hopkins University, matched to one student, identified during his or her 9th grade year. To enroll, students in a participating high school must be in the bottom of their class – the average GPA among the most recent cohorts was 0.8 on a 4.0 scale – and have a history of truancy and disciplinary problems. Students are then enrolled for at least eight years, carrying them through their final three years of high school and first five years after graduation.
Early on, Sarah realized that her success depended as much on the growth and resilience of herself and the volunteer corps, as it did on the growth and resilience of the students served: in addition to helping kids overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, she had to find a way to retain volunteers and to equip them with the same level of emotional care, support and sense of self-efficacy that they provided IMP students. To do so, Sarah fostered a strong intrapreneurial culture that resulted in a think-tank of staff and volunteers who evolved the IMP model to meet the needs of the students and volunteers.
The think-tank developed a number of key innovations. For example, every unit within IMP is designed to function as a family and has a group leader who focuses on the morale and needs of all members. Family members are in constant communication with one another, using a combination of text, phone, email, or instant messaging, and are coordinated by a volunteer Head of Household (HoH). Families of different cohorts are connected through an IMP House, managed by an experienced volunteer GrandParent (GP) who in turn mentors the HoHs and facilitates sharing of both resources and practices across families. These IMP leaders are recruited, trained and retained through the rigorous IMP Volunteer Leadership Program.
Another key innovation came when it became clear that effective communication was critical to success. Sarah and the team developed a number of carefully structured feedback loops at every level within the organization so that issues could be addressed in real-time. Records of all student interactions are diligently tracked, in order for every member of a family to see exactly what is happening in the student's life, and to be able to continually adapt and develop his or her relationship with the student to best address the student’s needs. Finally, Sarah and the team established a system and training program to formalize and facilitate quick decision-making, effective delegation, and clear and adaptable role delineation to fully engage the think-tank of volunteers.
Aware that college students are, by definition, transient, Sarah designed the model so that families could evolve over multiple "generations" within the eight-year enrollment period. As one volunteer transitions out, another transitions in, undergoing a thorough on-boarding process designed to build a deep connection between him or her and the student. From the outset, volunteers are encouraged to break down the artificial divide between "us" and "them," and "haves" and “have-nots," by sharing their failures and the moments in which they, too, have felt alone or insufficient. Building off a foundation of deep trust, volunteers are tasked with everything from driving kids to school in the morning, to checking in on them throughout the day, to helping them secure summer jobs and tap into local community resources. One volunteer will check on a student at school; if the student isn't there, another will drive to his home or to another of his favorite hang-outs and bring him to school. Some families arrange daily wake-up calls, others have been known to completely refurbish run-down living rooms or even house students should they find themselves temporarily homeless.
Sarah realized, however, that while the approach can now be easily replicated within or across cities, thanks to highly developed structure, robust training program, and extensive documentation, its highly resource-intensive nature meant that it could never serve every student in need. She thus developed a two-part strategy to ensure that IMP’s impact is felt beyond the kids it serves: first, by creating ways for local decision-makers to meaningfully participate in the IMP community, and second, by sharing content and bringing together a number of influential players in education and social services to learn from one another.
As the model evolved to support kids, the core team of volunteers noticed many kids had common needs. Resource teams were formed to create concentric circles around the "house structure," through which volunteers can collate and access resources that meet common needs, whether related to healthcare, legal counsel, workforce development, or the like. In the process, the resource teams became low-barrier touch-points that also served as the initial hook for professional or retired volunteers: for example, helping kids secure jobs within a particular company or field, or offering pro bono legal resources. The college volunteers serve as liaisons to the community at large, creating a comfortable point of entry through which leaders within a city can get involved, and gradually work their way deeper into the organization. Of the more than 500 members of the IMP community many are directors, vice-presidents and presidents of local companies and institutions. The strategy has had a dual effect of both convincing local decision-makers that every kid can succeed, and deepening connectivity within the community, so that formerly siloed individuals now see what they are capable of accomplishing when acting together.
Finally, Sarah is beginning to explore different ways to export IMP practices, beyond direct replication. She has been approached by a number of institutions, ranging from major companies to city colleges, eager to apply the IMP model and leadership development training to their own environments. Aware of the danger of losing focus, the think-tank is building an extensive wiki through which any member or outside organization can identify and share best practices, policies, and examples. In addition, she convened a conference over the summer that included three other organizations involved in somehow creating “non-traditional” families” – Friends of the Children - Boston, the Montana Academy, and the Princeton Center for Leadership Training – and leaders from across Baltimore, who together shared their experiences on what it takes to help low-income at-risk youth succeed.
The impact has been profound. To date, 100% of participating students have been retained, graduated from high school or the equivalent, and been accepted into college. Of the 15 students in the first cohort who will graduate from IMP in May 2013, 40% have graduated from college thus far: a number which Sarah expects to be 66% at the end of the year, based on credits completed. IMP has over 500 active volunteers and has worked with more than 900 volunteers since its inception, enjoying an over 80% volunteer retention rate from year to year. Having already expanded to a second site within Baltimore, IMP is emerging from early incubation phase and is poised for takeoff: the organization added 32 students to its ranks in January 2013, bringing its current group of 95 to 127, and Sarah expects the number to grow dramatically from there.
She credits her family for giving her that kind of drive: she wasn't afraid to take risks because she always knew her family's support was absolute. While Sarah was in grade school, her parents discovered her pastor abusing church funds and chose to publicly expose the misuse and to fight for change and reconciliation. Suddenly ostracized by their fellow congregants, her family only grew stronger, and it was their care that propelled her forward.
Her best friend, Ryan, wasn't so lucky: having grown up in a typical suburban home in Indiana, his mother was in a serious car accident while he was in middle school. She became temporarily paralyzed, and soon lost her job. The family moved into Section Eight housing, where his parents developed an addiction to painkillers and eventually sold drugs to support their addiction. His family in shambles, Ryan regularly missed school and failed most of his classes during his freshman year. A group of teachers, however, banned together to offer private tutoring and clothing, food, and money to keep the water and heat running in his home. The teachers became his family extended unit, and by the end of his senior year, he was making A's and became a varsity athlete. The two fell in love, and married at the age of 19.
Sarah went on to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, but felt incomplete throughout the early days of her program. As she was driving past Dunbar High School on her way to class one day, she grew suddenly aware of the enormous disparity between the gleaming university buildings and the dilapidated school across the street. She thought about Ryan, and realized other kids there were likely experiencing the same struggles he had, due not to a lack of intelligence, but to a lack of support. She felt a deeper affinity with those kids than she did with her own peers, and sought a way to create the kind of family for herself in Baltimore that had afforded her a sense of belonging and self-efficacy all her life. And so, in 2004, Incentive Mentoring Program was born.
As a graduate student, Sarah watched as her advisor founded what was essentially a new field within neuroscience. Already deeply immersed in IMP, she wondered how the approach that worked within the scientific community might apply to entrepreneurship. Though aware of the profound differences between the two worlds, she sought to apply the scientific method to IMP's approach: gathering proof-points and external validation in order to showcase its impact on kids and volunteers, rigorously codifying the critical inputs and identifying the corresponding outputs and outcomes, and collaborating with others who had complementary data. It was there that she set out to define a new field among those who had found a way to develop non-traditional families.
Upon graduating in 2010, Sarah elected to forgo a career in biomedical engineering, and began working with IMP full-time.
Creating leaders in marginalized communities