In Philadelphia, Program Pairs Adult Mentors With Teenagers To Provide Money and Time

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Sixteen-year-old Warner Days and his mentor, Victor Deane Jr., may shoot hoops or gobble cheese steaks together, but neither activity is what the 10th grader considers their most important. That would be studying.

And what was Warner, a student at inner-city Philadelphia's University City High School, most looking forward to this year as school got under way last week?

"To study hard," he declares, adding that he wants to make A's and B's instead of last year's B's and C's.

It may be surprising that a teenage boy would rank his schoolwork above girls or his beloved football and basketball, but that is just what Mr. Deane is hoping Warner will continue to do--with his help.

The pair was united last spring under the innovative Sponsor-a-Scholar program run by Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit enterprise that offers programs and outreach to help kids stay in school and prepare for college and careers.

Matching students--at-risk or otherwise--with adult mentors is far from new, but Sponsor-a-Scholar puts a new twist on that relationship.

Not only do the adults give their time to develop a personal relationship with the students, they also make a tax-deductible contribution of $1,500 each year for four years--or $5,000 up front--to help pay for the student's college education.

Or, as in Mr. Deane's case, a sponsoring corporation such as his employer, the Arco Chemical Company, puts up the money and then seeks volunteer mentors from within its ranks.

Sponsor-a-Scholar is meant to be an experimental adaptation of the New York philanthropist and businessman Eugene M. Lang's "I Have a Dream" project, says Thomas W. Moloney, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York City philanthropic group that last year provided the initial $100,000 grant to launch Sponsor-a-Scholar.

Since 1981, when Mr. Lang promised to pay the college expenses of a class of New York City 6th graders if they finished high school, the "I Have a Dream" program has expanded to numerous cities where individuals and organizations have guaranteed the college tuitions of selected inner-city youths.

But knowing that there are only a few millionaires like Mr. Lang who can afford to donate all college costs for one student-let alone for a group of children--the Commonwealth Fund aimed to "try to make the concept available to hundreds of thousands of middle-income families" who could afford to contribute toward the expenses of a single student, according to Mr. Moloney.

Next year, he says, his organization hopes to have Sponsor-a-Scholar programs in 10 more cities.

Not Unlike Adoption

While the Philadelphia program is still reaching for its goal of 100 sponsors, it appears to be right on track.

Since recruitment began in January, personal contacts and some advertising in such venues as classical-music stations have prompted 75 donors--51 individuals and 24 corporations or law firms--to come forward to offer their money and time for 82 low-income 9th graders, say Sponsor-a-Scholar officials.

The money is designed to be "last dollar" funding to cover the gap between the scholarship or financial aid a student may receive and that money which the family is expected to contribute, says Marciene S. Mattleman, executive director of Philadelphia Futures.

The students who participate come from neighborhood high schools--not magnet schools--in the city of Philadelphia only, Ms. Mattleman says. They must also be eligible for free- or reduced-cost school lunches.

By and large, she says, the students are "average kids, but kids who already have good grades, good attendance, show some potential."

In order not to disappoint some students, the program does not take applications but instead receives recommendations from the Philadelphia School Collaborative College Access Program, which runs offices where students can obtain college-related information.

For their part, the mentors must commit to contact the students at least monthly for five years. The fifth year was included, Ms. Mattleman says, "Because the first year of college is such an important step."

Originally aimed at an older audience, recruitment of sponsor-mentors has instead turned up individual sponsors who are largely in their 30's and 40's. And, Ms. Mattleman notes, "There not wildly rich."

But, she says, they are people who are influenced by the social activism of 1960's "and want to make some kind of personal commitment."

Because that commitment is not insignificant, it is perhaps not surprising that what Ms. Mattleman describes when she explains the Sponsor-a-Scholar program sounds a bit like the legal-adoption process.

A sponsor, for example, may request certain characteristics in a student, such as the ability to speak Spanish or a love of sports. When possible, those requests are honored, but Philadelphia Futures has also made a commitment that 50 percent of the program's scholars will be black males.

Following a meeting between the sponsor and the student and his parent, the sponsor signs a legally binding "pledge agreement" that details the financial commitment of the sponsor. Later, the sponsor, student, and parent sign a "statement of intent" that describes the terms of their relationship. As a group, all of the Sponsor-a-Scholar students also hear a talk on their responsibilities in the program.

As the pledge agreement states, if the student drops out of school, is suspended or expelled, fails to pass to the next grade, fails to graduate, or otherwise fails to merit the scholarship, Philadelphia Futures will use the scholarship money for other students in the program.

Helping 'Open Doors'

In addition to listing their more obvious contributions--the college dollars, the help with homework, the tours of corporate offices--mentors also speak of the less tangible assistance they hope they are giving their students.

They speak earnestly of providing "opportunity" or "guidance" and of helping the students "open doors" or "navigate the system" so they might uncover special stipends or summer jobs or programs.

Participating in the Sponsor-a-Scholar program, Mr. Deane says, has helped him realize the importance of early intervention for all at-risk students.

For a teenager who might, say, be in a gang now, he says, "there was a point in a kid's life when he wasn't like that."

"If we get the proper guidance, [we'll get] going along the right road in life," says Mr. Deane, who is himself the father of two sons and, like Warner, hails from West Philadelphia.

Ms. Mattleman, herself a sponsor of a boy whose mother is raising two children on an $11,000-a-year a custodian's salary, agrees. "Being around people who have access and know how to manage the system is as important as getting the [Scholastic Aptitude Test-preparation] courses and the financial aid," she says. Even the smallest gestures by a mentor--acts that might be taken for granted in a middle-class household--can make a difference to a teenager from a less advantaged background, she says.

One sponsor, for example, rented a videocassette of the director Franco Zeffirelli's film version of "Romeo and Juliet," to watch along with his student, who was reading the play in school.

"What a difference for that kid," says Ms. Mattleman. "It is that kind of intervention that is so natural for people of means and know-how... that is so terribly important for these kids."

What is also important is the academic helping hand, according to Warner, Mr. Deane's student.

He calls the program "great" because of "the way they help me out in my studies and ... [are] there for me if I need help."

"If there's something I don't understand, I call my sponsor and we go to the library" or to Mr. Deane's house, says Warner, who is considering Pennsylvania State University for college.

That is just what Mr. Deane likes to hear.

"I think at a point in life when you're thinking about sports and the opposite gender and dancing and the latest songs," he says, "what [Sponsor-a-Scholar] has brought and I've helped bring [to Warner] is an acknowledgment that education is going to be the most important thing in his life next to his family and his health."

Other mentors have also spotted changes, however subtle, in their students since their relationship began.

Antonia R. Neubauer, who is serving as a mentor jointly with her college-student daughter Melissa, said she has noticed in her student, 15-year-old Helia Trinidad, a "willingness not to be afraid to push a little bit harder on her [school] counselor" to get the best and most complete advice.

In the coming year, Mr. Deane says, he hopes to see Warner mature even more.

"I'm looking forward to Warner actually realizing his full potential, bringing in the grades he wants to bring in," he says.

"I want to see the look on his face when he gets something he strived for."

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as In Philadelphia, Program Pairs Adult Mentors With Teenagers To Provide Money and Time
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