Wardell Scott, 17, says he was a good student at Patterson High School, but he lost focus and was pressured into fights by rival teen factions.
About two years ago, Wardell was kicked out of Patterson in his ninth-grade year because of disciplinary problems. And that, he says, was enough reason to leave school for good and help his father with masonry work. That is, until he was inspired to persevere.
Wardell and other young American Indians in the Baltimore area are finding guidance in the Native American Mentoring Program, a big-brother, big-sister arrangement between adults from a variety of backgrounds and Indian children.
"We try to give them dreams," says Verlyn Barnes, a 37-year-old Westminster resident and volunteer who helps to administer the program. "If a child has dreams, it gives him something to strive for."
Mr. Barnes, himself an American Indian, said the program is aimed at uniting youngsters with successful adults to provide positive examples of what a good education can do. The mentors hope they can stem the high dropout rate among Indian students.
Role models meet with their proteges a couple of times each month to offer tutoring in biology, go out to a museum or just sit down for conversation. The mentors, most of whom are American Indians, come from a variety of professional backgrounds. They include a computer manufacturer, a warehouse manager, an educator and several employees of the U.S. Indian Health Service. Mr. Barnes is a salesman for a box company in Southwest Baltimore.
The program also organizes spelling and math bees, camp and college trips and a Native American Lacrosse Club so the students can take pride in their culture and continue their education.
Wardell says he was saved just in time.
"I lost faith in everything, so I stopped going back," he says.
Last school year, with the help of his mentors, Wardell attended the East Baltimore Christian Deliverance Academy, a private school. This fall, Wardell will re-enter Patterson High and work in a special program to catch up on some of the schooling he missed.
He was one of roughly 30 youths honored by the mentoring program last week at an awards ceremony at the Broadway Baptist Church. The students were congratulated for staying in school all year.
The mentoring program is funded by private donations and by entrepreneurial efforts by the students. It draws praise from educators who supervise Indian students.
"They do a remarkable job," says Jeanette Walker, who heads the Native American Title V Project in Baltimore, which supervises the educational progress of 525 students in city schools who are known to be of Indian heritage.
While precise data are not available, American Indian students are believed to have a higher dropout rate than the city average. Many Indian youngsters drop out before they enter high school because education is not a priority in many of their homes, program officials say. Often, they take up manual labor with their parents, who themselves may not have finished school.
The mentor program is designed to teach the youngsters self-reliance. Tanelle Schrock, a 9-year-old student at William Paca Elementary School in East Baltimore, says it has been successful. "They show me I can be myself," Tanelle said. She said the program has given her the confidence to plan on becoming a doctor or lawyer or nurse. She has not yet decided which.