Equity & Diversity

Baltimore Program Gives Low-Income Students ‘STEPS’ to College Success

By Marva Hinton — November 11, 2016 4 min read
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When you’re a good student in an underserved school, it’s easy to get lost.

That’s the premise driving a program that helps send students to college from Baltimore City Schools.

Building STEPS (Science Technology And Education Partnerships Inc.) works with high schools that primarily serve students from low-income families to identify those who have the potential to go to college with just a little help on key steps in the process like understanding how to apply for financial aid and how to write a successful college application essay.

The program is housed at Towson University and accepts students from nine of the city’s most-challenged high schools.

Building STEPS Executive Director Debra Hettleman said in those schools less than 10 percent of the students have a B- average or higher, and almost all of them qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“We know that within those schools there are students with a B average, and that everyone looks at those kids and says, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine. We’re going to focus on the other 90 percent,’ which in some ways, makes a lot of sense,” said Hettleman. “But the question remains what happens to those 10 percent of kids.”

Those are the students recruited to join the program. Students are accepted after completing an application and submitting their transcripts. They enter the program at the beginning of their junior years.

During the school year, these students participate in nine full-day junior seminars, which take place during class time. Building STEPS is considered to be co-curricular.

The program picks up the students on seminar days and takes them to businesses in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

“The whole concept is to give our kids exposure to the whole breadth of careers in science and technology,” said Hettleman.

During the seminars, students meet people who work in science and technology, and the professionals explain to the students what it takes to be in their shoes. They also learn about professional etiquette, so things like how to shake hands and how to talk to your boss are covered.

During the summer, the program places the students in internships with tech companies. They work from Tuesday through Friday for minimum wage for companies they’re interested in. On Mondays, the students get together for all-day workshops.

Through the workshops, they receive SAT tutoring, career guidance and help writing college essays. Each student is assigned a personal writing adviser. The students also do community service and put together care packages for Building STEPS graduates who are in college.

Second-Year Curriculum

As seniors, these students attend five college workshops that cover things such as how to choose a college, how to apply, and what Hettleman calls “persistence work” about topics such as scheduling your time as a college student and how to make good decisions.

“We do a lot of work with how do you navigate freshman year, how are you going to make it work,” said Hettleman.

The program also meets with the students’ parents to explain the process of applying for financial aid, so they understand why information related to their income is required.

Eighty-five percent of the Building STEPS students are the first in their families to go to college, so this is often all new to everyone involved.

In April, all of the students bring their acceptance letters and their financial aid-award letters, and program leaders help them to decide which school would be best for them. The program also stands by them through the summer before college to make sure they’ve done things like submit their housing contract on time, and it continues to keep up with them the whole time they’re in college even if they encounter problems that prevent them from graduating on time.

Building STEPS checks on the students on campus, shows them where to find resources, and introduces them to other students there who are part of the program.

“We stick with them until they stop sticking with us,” said Hettleman.

Right now, the program is serving 140 high school students and 200 college students. Since Building STEPS began in 1995 it’s served about 400 students.

New After-School Program

This year, the program added an after-school component at two of the nine schools it serves to further supplement its work with students.

Students meet for one hour twice a month and receive additional college and career programming, which includes guided study and homework assistance, logic and organizational games and leadership and social skills training.

A school staff member coordinates the program, and tutors are brought in to help students who need it.

Program leaders hope this new on-campus aspect of Building STEPS will also send a message to students who are not involved with the program.

“The other purpose for us is to continue to strengthen our relationship with our schools and really become a brand within our schools, so that kids will start to think, ‘I want to be in Building STEPS. I know they’re looking for a B. I’m going to do better, and I’m going to strive to be in that program,’” said Hettleman.

Eventually, the program hopes to expand the after-school piece to all nine schools.


More than 80 percent of Building STEPS students go on to receive college degrees, and nearly half of them earn master’s or other advanced degrees.

“Our students are remarkable, and they are remarkably successful,” said Hettleman, who contends that these students just needed a little push. “If you had a conversation with them they would say to you, ‘I probably would not have gone to college without Building STEPS because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.’”

Building STEPS is privately funded and receives support from several primarily local organizations including the Alvin and Fanny B. Thalheimer Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Abell Foundation.

Photo: Building STEPS students take a field trip to SciTech Student Learning Lab in Baltimore, Md. (Photo Courtesy Building STEPS)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.