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Offering Incentives to Stay in School

At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in March, Clarence Mundell, a sophomore at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, is staying after school to study with his tutor, David Gorkin, a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. Mundell has an American Government test tomorrow. For the past four months, he's been keeping a marathon schedule that starts at 6 in the morning and — after attending school, tutoring, and basketball practice — finishes at about 9 at night. He's a two-sport athlete and is maintaining a grade point average of almost 80 percent in all of his classes. He hopes a basketball scholarship will get him to college, following in the legendary footsteps of Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis, both Dunbar alumni.

This time last year, Mundell was failing five of eight classes. "I was coming to school and just, like, playing around, cutting class, not turning in homework," he recalls. His grades weren't high enough to allow him to play basketball, and he was headed down a path that would have seen him kicked out of Dunbar, a magnet school that specializes in the sciences, and moved back to a regional zone school. "Then IMP came along," he says. "My grades came up. They just helped me through a lot of stuff."

IMP founder Sarah Hemminger (left) with Dunbar graduate Judeith James and IMP volunteer (and Johns Hopkins grad student) Amber Ballard. IMP is the Incentive Mentoring Program, established by Sarah Hemminger, a PhD student in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins. The organization works with at-risk students — those who failed at least half of their freshman courses and face personal challenges like gang violence or abuse at home. Mundell is guarded about much of his personal history, but his tough facade suggests he's seen his share of difficulties.

Hemminger, 27, a native of suburban Indianapolis, started IMP in 2004 when she approached Dunbar asking for the school's most troubled students. "I said, 'I want the kids who failed all their freshman classes first semester,'" Hemminger explains. "'I want the kids who have behavioral problems. Give me the kids that you think are going to be out of here come June.'" She asked for 10; they eventually gave her 15.

In that first semester, Hemminger created the framework for what is now a 501(c)3 organization with more than 200 volunteers. At IMP's first meeting, with pizza as the incentive for a group of kids who she says "didn't want to be there," Hemminger went over the program's three target areas: academics, community service, and leadership. "I explained that no matter what they did to me, I wasn't going to go away, so they might as well get on board," she says. "And they did. But they made it difficult. Basically what I did was stalk them. If they decided they were going to be in the program, and they didn't show up at school, I drove to their houses and I picked them up."

IMP works like this: Each student is placed with five to eight IMP volunteers (mostly students from Hopkins' School of Medicine or Bloomberg School of Public Health) to act as a "family," keeping track of these students nearly 24 hours a day. The team approach means that volunteers with hectic schedules are able to trade off responsibility while ensuring that someone is available to the students at all times.

Matt Czarny, a second-year med student, is the "head of household" of Mundell's IMP family. "A lot of what I've been doing is coordinating — making sure people are doing what they need to be doing," he says. Early in the school year, he called Mundell's mother every couple of nights and drove out to their house to help deal with school paperwork.

Gorkin says he approaches tutoring Mundell as he would a basketball practice, except that he gives him academic rather than athletic drills. "I'm trying to get him to understand that the mind is something that's important," Gorkin emphasizes, "that improving your mind will drive you in your life and take you where you need to go."

IMP families do more than tutor — they might drive a student to school, take him or her to the movies, or intervene to fix the root of a problem. "The number-one reason IMP works is because everyone involved shares the belief that tutoring alone is not enough," says Melissa Dattalo, vice chair of the board of directors for IMP. "Under Sarah's guidance, mentors identify the obstacles in each child's personal life and develop plans to ameliorate them."

Hemminger started IMP with the goal of getting the students to graduate from high school. This fall, 14 students in that first class started college (the 15th begins next fall), and it is now Hemminger's mission to see them graduate again, this time from college. Judeith James, a member of the first class and now a freshman at Wesley College in Dover, Delaware, says she still keeps in touch with Hemminger. "She helps motivate me," James says. "If I'm struggling, or if I fail a test, she'll be like, 'Oh, you can do it. I know you'll pass.'"

Mundell is part of IMP's second class, which has 17 students. Given the program's success, IMP would like to add a new class each year — funding permitting. Eventually, Dattalo says, they'd like to bring the program to other schools in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins has a number of mentoring programs, in East Baltimore and elsewhere. Andrés Alonso, CEO of the Baltimore City Public School System, has also requested that more agencies and universities engage in mentoring high school students, especially those at risk of not graduating, so IMP could serve as a model for other programs.

"If something like this could be duplicated," says Dunbar principal Stephen Colbert, "if the city could invest money in more programs like IMP, the school system as a whole would be much better off."
— Rebecca Messner, A&S '08

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