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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 13, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 21
Inspiring a turnaround

In two years, Sarah Hemminger has seen her Incentive Mentoring Program at Dunbar pay off. Seven students participating made honor roll last semester.

Sarah Hemminger leads a band of classmates helping Dunbar students

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

One early January morning two years ago, Johns Hopkins medical student Sarah Hemminger strode purposefully down Orleans Street to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, located a stone’s throw away from the East Baltimore campus.

Unannounced, Hemminger asked to meet with the school’s principal to discuss her desire to tutor 10 or so Dunbar freshmen. Not just any students. She wanted the "dead end kids.” Those one step away from academic expulsion, or otherwise troubled. The next day, the school gave her 14 students. Two months later, the group’s number was up to 17.

"Most of these kids had very bad grades, but those [with bad grades] weren’t the only ones the school considered giving me—all of them were in serious need of help,” Hemminger said.

Help is what they got, in the form of tutorial sessions that immediately paid dividends. At the end of the first semester, 70 percent of Hemminger’s students had passed all their courses.

Today, 18 students, including the original 17, meet with Hemminger and other tutors, mostly medical students, as part of what is now called the Incentive Mentoring Program at Dunbar.

Of the 18, all of whom are juniors, seven made honor roll last semester, and another six passed all their classes. Even those still having some academic trouble have displayed marked improvement, Hemminger said, and the fact they are all still in school is a success in its own right.

"Many of these kids were failing, and a big reason for that is that they weren’t going to classes,” she said.

The Incentive Mentoring Program’s mission is to foster the academic and social growth of selected students at Dunbar High School.

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.

Hemminger, a doctoral candidate in the School of Medicine’s Biomedical Engineering Department, said that at the time she founded the program she felt "self-absorbed” in classes and wanted to apply her skills and time elsewhere. She thought that what kids like these needed was a good measure of encouragement and personal attention.

She started with no staff or funds, just a will to make a difference.

"I would tell my close friends what I was doing, and they thought I was on some kind of drug or had lost my mind,” she said. "The running joke in anatomy class was that the formaldehyde is getting to Sarah.”

Eventually, she enlisted some friends and colleagues to volunteer as tutors. Her original plan was to just help the Dunbar students with homework, but she soon discovered additional enticement was needed. The first few sessions, she admits, were rough. Some threw things at the tutors; others didn’t show up.

To counter, Hemminger early on began to take the students on fun outings, including camping trips, movies, visits to her home and dinners out, all of which she paid for out of pocket. She found food was a great motivator, as several of the students had never before been to a sit-down restaurant, and a free meal was not something to pass up.

"Most of them had never been out of Baltimore before, even to the county. [Some students] could not understand how kids in my neighborhood could leave their bikes out in the open, unattended, and have them not get stolen. It never crossed my mind they would react this way, almost beyond my comprehension.”

In return for her generosity, Hemminger asks the students to regularly attend the tutorial sessions and to participate in the volunteer activities, whether it be to spend a day at a Maryland food bank, help clean up a local high school or mentor middle school students.

Hemminger and the other tutors meet twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, with the program’s full group. Ideally, there will be a tutor for every student.

Students typically have the most difficulty with the math and science classes, a problem that plays to the strengths of the Hopkins tutors. Through word of mouth, other Dunbar students have become aware of the program, and Hemminger allows "drop-ins” of any grade who need a little help with their studies.

To date, roughly 60 Johns Hopkins students have been involved with the program, including a core of 20 tutors. Other volunteers transport the students to activities or work with Dunbar officials to closely monitor the students’ progress, which includes keeping tabs on all homework assignments and test scores.

"We’ll find out what assignments they didn’t turn in and let them make it up,” she said. "Our goal is to instill in them the value of why school and grades matter so that they become self-motivated. We can’t hold their hands the whole time.”

To help support her efforts, Hemminger applied for and received an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, the stipend of which helped to fund the program’s activities. She also secured a Community Service Grant from the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and funds from her own department.

Murray Sachs, director of the Biomedical Engineering Department, said that Hemminger’s efforts have made a profound impact on not just the lives of these 18 students but the department as well.

"Sarah’s program is one of the most marvelous things that has happened here in a long time,” Sachs said. "The spirit she has generated here is just incredible. On top of all this, she is an excellent grad student.”

Romina Wahab, the program’s director of volunteering and a second-year medical student, said that she got involved with Hemminger’s group because she felt it would offer a nice break from medical school and be an enriching experience.

"I’ve stayed with it because I’m having a real good time. It’s fun working with the students, Sarah and the other tutors,” said Wahab, who joined the program in September 2004. "It’s also so rewarding. You see the progress in these kids. The volunteers have made so much difference in their lives. When we started, the students would come into class all rowdy and noisy, but they have matured so much. Now they come in and get right to work.”

Hemminger said her short-term plan for the program is to take this first group of students through graduation. Long term, Hemminger realizes she has to find someone to eventually take over the reins, as there will come a time she moves on.

Hers will be big shoes to fill, said Reza Shadmehr, Hemminger’s faculty adviser.

"She sacrifices so much of her time for them. She is a second parent to some of these kids,” said Shadmehr, a professor of biomedical engineering, who has known Hemminger since her days as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. "If Sarah feels she needs to, she gets involved with finding them clothes, books or whatever else they need.”

Her work has not gone unnoticed, as in January she received a Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award from Johns Hopkins in honor of her commitment.

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


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