Lean On Me

March 01, 1992 5 min read
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And what is Warner, a student at inner-city Philadelphia’s University City High School, most looking forward to this year? “To study hard,’' he declares, adding that he wants to make As and Bs instead of last year’s Bs and Cs.

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 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-aScholar puts a unique twist on that relationship: Not only do the adults give their time to develop a personal relationship with the students, but 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 Deane’s case, a sponsoring corporation such as his employer, the Arco Chemical Co., 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 Lang’s “I Have a Dream’’ project, says Thomas Moloney, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York City philanthropy that in 1990 provided the initial $100,000 grant to launch the Philadelphia program.

Since 1981, when 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 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, Moloney says. By the end of the year, his organization hopes to have Sponsor-a-Scholar programs in place in 10 more cities.

While the Philadelphia program was still reaching for its goal of 100 sponsors late last year, it appeared to be right on track. During the first nine months of 1991, personal contacts and some advertising in such venues as classical-music stations prompted 75 donors--51 individuals and 24 corporations or law firms--to come forward to offer their money and time for 82 9th graders.

The donations are designed to be “last dollar’’ funding to cover the gap between the scholarship or financial aid a student may receive and the money that the family contributes, says Marciene Mattleman, executive director of Philadelphia Futures.

The students who participate come from neighborhood high schools--not magnet schools--in the city of Philadelphia. They must also be eligible for free- or reduced-cost school lunches. By and large, Mattleman says, the students are “average kids, but kids who already have good grades, good attendance, and 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 operates 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, Mattleman says, “because the first year of college is such an important step.’'

Originally aimed at an older audience, recruitment of mentors has instead turned up individual sponsors who are largely in their 30s and 40s. People, Mattleman notes, who “are not wildly rich.’' They are often people who have been influenced by the social activism of the 1960s, she says, “and want to make some kind of personal commitment.’'

Because that commitment is not insignificant, it is not surprising that Mattleman’s description of 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, the student, and his or her parent, the sponsor signs a legally binding “pledge agreement’’ that details the financial commitment. Later, the sponsor, student, and parent sign a “statement of intent’’ that describes the terms of their relationship. All of the Sponsor-a-Scholar students 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.

In addition to listing their more obvious contributions--the college dollars, the help with homework, and 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 that they might uncover special stipends or summer jobs or programs.

Even the smallest gestures by a mentor--acts that might be taken for granted in a middleclass household--can make a difference to a teenager from a lessadvantaged background. One sponsor, for example, rented a videocassette of the director Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of “Romeo and Juliet’’ to watch with his student, who was reading the play in school. “It is that kind of intervention, so natural for people of means and know-how, that is so terribly important for these kids,’' Mattleman says.

What is also important is the academic helping hand. Warner, Deane’s student, 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.’'

That is just what Deane likes to hear. “What Sponsor-a-Scholar has brought and what I’ve helped bring to Warner,’' he says, “is an acknowledgment that education is going to be the most important thing in his life next to his family and his health.’'

In the coming year, 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.’'--Millicent Lawton

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Lean On Me


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