At last check, 66 percent of Baltimore City Public Schools students graduate high school in four years. Every student in the Incentive Mentoring Program graduated from high school and were accepted to college, and 53 percent graduated from a four-year college. For the city, the comparable statistic is 6 percent.

IMP isn’t a special placement for gifted and talented students. In the two schools the organization works with – the Academy for College and Career Exploration and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School – only the bottom quartile of each freshman class is allowed to enroll. IMP takes the lowest-performing students, and turns them into college graduates.

Your first question is probably, “how?” The answer is best told through a Mother Theresa quote that Sarah Hemminger, IMP founder and CEO, told the audience at a recent TEDx Baltimore talk: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” As seen through that lens, the answer is actually quite simple: IMP surrounds students with what amounts to an extended, loving family.

The average day of a student enrolled in IMP might be similar to a typical family’s day – with eight additional people to distribute the workload and burden of raising a child. One volunteer might take the student to school and pack them lunch, another might tutor them in the afternoon, and a third may babysit younger siblings so that the student and her mother can work together on homework. The volunteers work closely with the students’ families, forming a circle of support around each student that lasts until that student graduates from college.

“Our goal is to get people to rethink the definition of family and community,” Sarah says. “Students who are struggling in school don’t lack intelligence or ability. They struggle because of outside circumstances.”

To break that cycle, IMP focuses on out of school hours. Sarah and her team bring in dependable, long-term volunteers. These volunteers are prepared to do whatever it takes to help students succeed.

As many as eight volunteers make up each student’s immediate IMP family. Volunteers treat students no differently than they’d treat their own children or siblings. The benefit of that equation? Customized support. Each student gets the time, resources and help they need to graduate and excel.

It’s a safety net that’s big enough to catch them when they slip: IMP has more than 600 active volunteers for 127 student participants, 90 percent of whom have made multi-year commitments to the students they mentor.

Just like the students are surrounded by a close-knit circle of volunteers, the volunteers are supported by a circle of resources that they can tap to help their students. This is the IMP community: from college and career planning, to legal help, to enrichment activities, volunteers have ready access to a city full of people and resources just as committed to each student’s success as they are.

It’s no surprise that to date, 100 percent of students have stayed with the program. Sarah says that once a student has been enrolled in IMP, they cannot get out, a fact owed to the persistence of IMP volunteers. Since 2004, IMP has never lost a student. “Family is family,” said Sarah at TEDx. “You don’t get to give family members back.”

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About The Author

Caroline is a writer who focuses on bettering cities for the young and economically disadvantaged.