November 29, 2010

Growing the family

Incentive Mentoring Program expands from East Baltimore to Hampden

In the ACCE cafeteria, student Malcome Miller, right, meets some of his IMP family, from the left: Tom Artaki, Brian Vaughn and Clea Baumhofer, all Johns Hopkins undergraduates. Photo: Will Kirk/

For 16 struggling students at Baltimore’s Academy for College and Career Exploration, their family and support system just grew eightfold.

The students, all freshmen at the Hampden-area high school, could use the assistance. Most have low grades, have failed several classes and have grave attendance issues. Without intervention, many are in danger of failing out.

The Incentive Mentoring Program and 110 volunteers—mostly Johns Hopkins undergraduates from the Homewood campus—want to ensure that doesn’t happen, even if it means showing up at students’ doorsteps in the morning to take them to class.

IMP, founded in 2004 by a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine student, uses a “family-style” mentoring approach to foster the transformation of high school students who are not meeting minimum academic requirements.

The students are facing significant psychosocial challenges, and the goal is to help them become self-motivated, resourceful and socially aware leaders.

Volunteers tutor the students and, in turn, the high-schoolers participate in monthly community service projects in order to build a sense of worth and social responsibility. In addition to tutoring, the IMP families—five to eight mentors per student—tailor activities to meet the needs of each student, whether it’s to take him shopping for school supplies or to take her to the movies.

Up until now, the program operated solely at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, located a stone’s throw away from the university’s East Baltimore campus. The first cohort included 15 students, and each year a new group was added. The mentors at Dunbar have been mostly students from the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health.

The results at Dunbar have been phenomenal. Ninety-four percent of the students in the IMP program have graduated on time and matriculated to college; the other 6 percent are still in school and on track to finish, just slightly later than expected. The first cohort is set to graduate from college in spring 2011.

Sarah Hemminger, the program’s founder and executive director, felt that the time was right for the program to expand to other schools.

“We demonstrated at Dunbar that the IMP family model works, that it’s an effective model for kids graduating,” Hemminger said. “Expansion was the next critical step. We thought the IMP family model could be replicated in other schools and other places around the country. In looking for a second potential site, partnering with Johns Hopkins was a natural.”

Hemminger reached out to the university’s Center for Social Concern to look for a new partner school. ACCE was deemed a perfect fit.

The Academy for College and Career Exploration opened in September 2004 with 150 students and added an additional 100 students in fall 2005. In 2006, the school relocated to the Robert Poole School Building, located at 1300 W. 36th St., and currently has an enrollment of 453 students. The university’s Center for Social Concern and Institute for Policy Studies have been active partners of the school, with undergraduate and graduate students coaching SAT preparation classes, planning advanced math classes and assisting students with their college applications.

The IMP program at ACCE was made possible by assistance from the CSC, the President’s Office and a grant from The Abell Foundation.

“Without support from [CSC Director] Bill Tiefenwerth and President [Ron] Daniels, this expansion to a second site would not be possible,” Hemminger said. “We’re so grateful for their support.”

In less than two months, the program recruited 110 volunteers, a group that includes area residents as well as Johns Hopkins undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. The volunteers met the ACCE students for the first time on Thursday, Nov. 18, for a series of icebreaker activities that included a meal in the school’s cafeteria.

At ACCE, volunteers will work with the students twice a week after school, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, to tutor them and assist with homework. But the involvement doesn’t stop there. Sometimes volunteers will renovate a student’s house, help a parent find a job, identify medical resources, go camping or otherwise advocate for the student and his family.

“We have a very holistic approach, customized to each student,” Hemminger said. “The students enrolled are failing their freshman year and face enormous challenges. We might literally have to go and get them to come to class. But that is what brings about the change. They get our unconditional support.”

The students will stay in the seven-year IMP program through their senior year of college. While in college, the IMP family will help obtain financial aid and scholarships, assist with homework online and help wherever needed. “We do the kinds of things a parent will do,” Hemminger said. “We want to change the norm. The student who might have dropped out of school and gotten involved with drugs is now in college and doing an internship in Disney. We’re all about success stories.”

Ayanna Fews, a Johns Hopkins alumna and a staff member with IMP, is the project site director for ACCE. Fews, who previously worked with the students at Dunbar, said that the new program will begin with building relationships.

“The volunteers will meet with the students and give them academic support, but they’ll also be learning about what barriers are in the way of the student’s success,” Fews said. “They might be coming from single-parent homes or dealing with substance issues.”

Fews said that there has to be buy-in from the parents, who are often extremely grateful to be gaining this “extended family.”

“They are not just getting a young person to tutor their child; they are getting all of us,” she said. “We often get hugs and thanks. They are very excited and thankful to have this support.”

IMP has a vertical family structure that at ACCE will build over time. In addition to the volunteers, upperclassmen in the ACCE program will assist new participants. This “home model” will eventually include a volunteer in a “grandparent” role who will oversee the other volunteers and students working with a particular ACCE student.

Marion Pines, a distinguished fellow at IPS and co-operator of the ACCE school, said that she was thrilled with the idea of IMP coming to ACCE.

“This is a wonderful kind of marriage,” Pines said. “Sarah asked, ‘Do you really need us?’ ‘You bet we need it,’ I told her. We have a group of disadvantaged, at-risk ninth-graders who certainly could use this type and level of support.”

Forty-five ACCE students requested a mentoring family. CSC has agreed to sponsor and support the ACCE/Johns Hopkins volunteers.

One concern was that the volunteers from the Homewood campus would be substantially younger than their East Baltimore counterparts, and therefore not able to provide the same level of support that the Dunbar students are getting. In response, Hemminger brought over a few mentors from the East Baltimore campus to supplement the relatively small number of graduate student volunteers from Homewood.

“We knew it would not be an exact replication of the existing program,” Hemminger said. “As to how this new family structure will operate at ACCE with mostly younger volunteers will be a learning experience, but one we’re excited about.”

Hemminger said that her long-term plan for the program is to replicate it in other schools and cities. “Once we prove we can replicate the success at Dunbar at ACCE, we can show this can be done in many places.”

For more information on the Incentive Mentoring Program, or to volunteer, go to