Program teaches education's value

A partnership between schools and corporations helps students at risk of dropping out.

July 09, 2005|By Lizzie Newland | Lizzie Newland,SUN STAFF

Five years ago, Marcus Dutton arrived at the Baltimore performance-wear designer 180s as part of a team charged with developing a new product.

He did all the usual things one expects as part of such an effort - design, making pitches to banks for money, working retailers to find distribution outlets. Along the way, there were also lectures on safe sex, saving money and doing homework properly.

In the end, Dutton not only helped get a product onto the market, he graduated from high school - something he said he might not have otherwise been able to do.

Dutton, 17, was part of the first class in an unusual mentoring program sponsored by the b4students Foundation, a Baltimore community service organization. The partnership between Baltimore schools and a handful of local corporations aims to nurture students who are at risk of dropping out by helping them develop professional and life skills over a five-year period.

Nine out of 10 students in that first class graduated from the program and from high school last month; another group is on track to graduate next spring.

Originally an effort by only 180s, the program expanded two years ago and now includes 81 students. The $150,000 annual budget is funded by businesses and private donations. EntreQuest, Constellation Energy, DAP Inc., Catapult Learning and The Daily Record are among the companies that have joined 180s in the program.

The program has grown as more businesses realize the benefits of mentoring to both the community and the workplace, organizers said. Also, experts said that's why more companies are looking to mentoring programs across the nation.

"It gives mentors a new career boost; it validates them," said Linda Phillips-Jones, a mentoring expert and principal consultant for the Mentoring Group consulting firm in Northern California. "And it's great for image and reputation."

Over five years, students learn leadership, communication and business skills from guest speakers, field trips and one-on-one interaction with mentors during monthly sessions.

The program is different from many mentoring programs because the students visit the workplace instead of mentors going to the schools, said Deb Emerson, a mentor at Constellation Energy.

Marcus Dutton said the mentoring effort played a big role in keeping him in school, from the time he was selected for the original class by teachers at Highlandtown Middle School. He graduated from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in June and will attend the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in the fall to study hotel and restaurant management.

Dutton, who mentored with product designer Alan Tipp at 180s, said the program provided "a little bit of life training, real-world work experience and a lifelong friend outside of my family that I can talk to and not be judged."

He said that he nearly dropped out of high school after his father died but that employees at 180s convinced him to stay in. "Having that one-on-one time - to have people to talk to that you know you can trust was the biggest part that affected me," he said.

Mentors said they like the program because of the relationships they build with students.

"Something like this ... sort of puts things in an important perspective," said Barb Kusterer, a mentor in customer service at 180s. "Yeah, we have a great company and make fun products, but that's not what it's all about."

Companies benefit from mentoring because it can improve employee recruitment, retention and performance, Phillips-Jones said. Firms that want to capitalize on those benefits have increased her client base from 20 during the 1980s to more than 2,000 today.

"When employees engage in a meaningful philanthropic activity in the community, it makes them feel good about themselves," said Leanne Posko, executive director of the b4students Foundation.

Posko and others said mentoring programs often help workers learn more than they expect to.

"[Mentors] get into it thinking they're just going to be giving," Posko said, "but they always find out that they learn just as much from the kids."

The students benefited financially as well. At 180s, they developed an earmuff with audio speakers and managed to get it sold at Ravens games and the downtown Locker Room. The sales brought in $8,570, which was split among the students for their education.

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