Education Opinion

How Do You Help Young People Care About School?

By Sam Chaltain — September 23, 2013 9 min read
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Guest post by Lennon Flowers.

It’s 6:50am on a Tuesday. Erwin is knocking on Tyrell’s door near the Poe Homes in West Baltimore. A few miles away, in a very different Baltimore, Mike is picking up Kelvin’s favorite yogurt to add to the lunch that he will drop off at Dunbar High School that morning. Elizabeth is texting Jayden to make sure he’s up and got his English paper done. To kick off her day, Cheryl is messaging Kelsey on Facebook with career ideas. Amanda is driving Juan home from rehab.

Throughout Baltimore, dozens of similar exchanges will take place long before the school bell rings. They will continue throughout the school-day, and carry on long after the day has ended.

The result is a set of outcomes rarely seen in an American education system known more for its failures than its successes: high school graduations and college acceptance letters, college graduations, and first jobs, all enjoyed by students who, at the start of their ninth grade year had an average GPA of 0.8 -- students selected precisely for being the ones no one else ever selected.

Each text, each ride to school, each hour spent studying together, or laughing together, or simply hanging out together, is part of a quiet movement, begun in Baltimore in 2004, to radically reconfigure the social support surrounding kids growing up in concentrated poverty. In the process, it is working to fundamentally alter how we conceive of the word “family,” and the way we think about changing educational outcomes.

The secret behind that success has nothing to do with any one of the myriad fads sweeping through our education system: with iPads in classrooms or self-directed learning, with the creativity movement or proven methodologies to deepen resilience in the face of challenge, with professional development seminars or small class sizes.

The secret, if there is one, is simple: in the words of Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old who recently swam from Cuba to Key West, “never, ever give up.”

Sarah Hemminger is a neuroscientist by training. She was six months into her Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University when she and her husband founded the Incentive Mentoring Program, known to most simply as “IMP”. Though she elected upon graduation to forgo a career in research, the vestiges of wearing a lab coat can be spotted in the way she approaches the organization.

“When making a decision, the brain asks two questions,” she explains. “The first concerns reward.” If you do X, you’ll get Y. According to Sarah, we’re programmed to select whatever X will give us the most rewarding Y.

“Today, you can go out on the street and maybe earn $100 selling drugs. If you go to school, eight years from now you might obtain a college degree. You might find a good job and earn $300 a day. The problem is, while $300 is greater than $100, time erodes the value of the $300. The longer you have to wait for the ‘return on your investment,’ the less it seems to be worth when weighed against the $100 you could pocket today,” says Sarah.

“The second thing the brain considers is likelihood: how much I believe that if I do X, I will actually get Y. If I attend school, am I sure to graduate, go to college, and get a job?” You don’t need to be an expert statistician to know that, as a child growing up in a poor part of Baltimore, the likelihood of one day getting that job is far exceeded by the chances of making $100 today.

Every day, we perform dozens of tiny, mostly subconscious calculations to determine the surest bets and maximize the surest rewards. While it may seem, then, that a chronically absent student is throwing his life away, he is actually doing what all of us do -- what, over the course of millennia, our brains have evolved to do -- to survive.

To assess the likelihood of success, the brain relies on thousands of data points, gathered from our past experiences and what we’ve seen work for others. A sixteen-year-old growing up in Baltimore has seen plenty of others selling drugs on the street, and walking away with $100. Yet he may not have ever seen someone return with a college degree and a job, eight years after starting the ninth grade.

Sarah sees her job, then, as turning “the decision to go to school into the most rational one.”

Doing so, she realized, would require two things: dramatically increasing the real-time rewards associated with choosing to go to school, and supplying students with a new set of data points that can convince them the long-term rewards of going to school are realistically within their reach.

IMP works by surrounding each student with what they call an “IMP Family": a group of up to eight volunteers, mostly grad students and undergraduates from nearby Johns Hopkins University, complete with a “Head of Household” and appointed “GrandParents”.

At first blush, the use of the word “family” feels problematic: a use of a loaded term, an act of feel-good sentimentality -- one that can just as easily threaten those for whom family is everything as those for whom it is little more than a laundry list of painful associations. What’s perhaps most disarming about Sarah’s use of the word, though, is the seriousness with which she, and every one of the now 600+ volunteers and students actively involved, takes it.

“We give rides to school, we pack lunches, we equip and renovate houses. We tutor older siblings for their GED, or babysit for younger siblings so our students can prepare for tests in peace,” says Sarah. In other words, “we do for our kids what any family would do for theirs.”

The relationship goes both ways. Enrollment in most high-performing charter schools and youth development programs depends on student buy-in: prevailing wisdom suggests that no amount of pushing or prodding will help a student who simply does not want to be there. Students are regularly reminded that their participation is a choice, and that success depends as much on their effort and level of commitment as it does on the quality of any teaching or support they receive.

For IMP, by contrast, once you’re in, you’re in. If a student refuses to get in the car in the morning, a volunteer will come back the next day, and the next. No amount of “just go away” will change that.

Over time, the armor surrounding kids who are loath to trust wears down. They begin to change their expectations of those who profess to care, and accordingly, of themselves. In other words, their data points change, and by virtue of having eight people cheering on their every victory, the real-time rewards of going to school change too.

The organization currently works with 127 students and families, and another 600 volunteers from the university and surrounding community. To date, every one of the students originally enrolled remains enrolled. One hundred percent have graduated from high school and 96% been accepted to college. This past year, 80% in IMP’s first cohort received a four-year college degree, two-year college degree, or certificate.

The biggest challenge, says Sarah, has little to do with increasing the level of grit or resilience or commitment among today’s most at-risk students -- those who, statistically, are more likely to end up dead or in jail by the time they are 30 than they are to secure a college degree. It has to do with cultivating the level of grit, resilience, and commitment required of every volunteer: with convincing a social science post-doc to come back day after day when at first she meets resistance.

Traditionally, we think of volunteer relationships as a match: someone with something to give is matched to someone with a corresponding need. When it comes to tasks that are relatively easy and short in scope -- say, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or tutoring a kid for an hour each week -- that dynamic often works. Volunteers and recipients alike enjoy real-time rewards, whether gratitude, a meaningful connection, or a feeling of accomplishment. When it comes to realizing long-term goals, however, volunteers and the organizations they power inevitably confront the limits of altruism.

A medical student in IMP picking up a kid for school for the first time might reasonably expect him to be grateful for the time he’s investing in the relationship, and to happily jump in the car. His own data points, in other words, lead him to expect an immediate reward. When the opposite comes to bear -- when the kid refuses to get in the car and tells him, in so many words, to get the hell away -- he, like most of us, would be inclined to oblige and never return.

Sarah found that the key to getting volunteers to come back -- to never, ever give up -- lay in shifting the relationship between volunteer and student from one born out of sympathy to one born out of empathy. She and the team made a conscious effort to define poverty not in traditional economic terms, but as loneliness -- knowing that by that definition, everyone knows what it is to be poor, just as everyone craves what it is to be rich. For IMP volunteers and the kids at the center of each family, empathy thus acts as the great equalizer: volunteers are encouraged to share their own vulnerabilities, and to acknowledge that they have as much to gain from the relationship as they have to offer it.

Of equal importance, she realized, was changing how each volunteer defined and measured success. Getting a kid to and through college is a great goal, but one that cannot happen overnight. When the kid is not even attending high school regularly, it is easy to dismiss that goal as nothing more than a pipe dream.

At a time when most of the talk in education circles concerns how to lift expectations, Sarah is working to lower them -- at least in the short-term -- in order to create small wins. If, before ever reaching the front door, that medical student has been warned that the kid will likely be rude, and may even say something threatening, he will consider it a major victory when, after arguing for a few minutes, the kid gets in the car. He’ll keep coming back, and in time, the wins will increase in frequency and significance.

Currently in operation in two high schools in inner-city Baltimore, IMP is poised to expand to additional high schools in the coming years. The ranks of IMP volunteers have grown to include attorneys in Maryland’s District Attorney’s office and staff from the Governor’s offices, and key executives in the business and philanthropic communities. Sarah is an Echoing Green Fellow, and this year was elected an Ashoka Fellow, joining the ranks of some of today’s best problem-solvers. She has met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and leaders in Philadelphia and New Haven have expressed an interest in bringing IMP to their cities. She and her strategic planning team, which includes JHU President Ronald J. Daniels and Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr., are exploring what such a scaling strategy might look like.

It would be easy to look at the scale of the challenge, and to write off IMP’s success as a local anomaly: an inspiring story, no doubt, but one that cannot hope to influence the nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States.

Yet viewed in a different light, the emails and text messages, the sandwiches and late night tutoring sessions, the rides to school and slowly changing beliefs in what is and is not possible in Baltimore, are signals that changing educational outcomes for the nation’s poorest students may not be as elusive as we have been led to believe. Because if a few hundred untrained undergraduate and graduate students can change the trajectories of kids who have been perpetually failed by our education and social service systems, then anyone can.

The secret? Never, ever give up, to be sure. And, perhaps, just as simply: love more.

Lennon Flowers works for Ashoka as part of its Start Empathy campaign team. She can be reached at lflowers@ashoka.org.

Follow Lennon on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.