Connecting to careers

At-risk Baltimore youths can find success, but it takes a 'family' of support and mentoring

January 03, 2012|By Arnold Packer

My two teenage granddaughters are high school seniors. They both plan to take next year off before entering college while they try to figure out how to connect to adult roles. How will they fit in the wider community? What are the careers where they will earn their livelihoods? While they struggle, they are not without resources: a good and successful public high school education, parents and family members who are professionals and connected to networks, extracurricular experiences in theater or school government, and part-time jobs.

I am engaged with the Incentive Mentoring Program (IMP), an organization dedicated to providing inner-city Baltimore teenagers with similar advantages. Unlike my granddaughters, their high school grades and attendance suggest that many of these teens were otherwise headed toward becoming "disconnected young adults" — disconnected from school, work and community. Nationally, the number of such youths between ages 16 and 24 is estimated at about 5 million. That number must be brought down substantially if the United States is to be internationally competitive.

The IMP seems to have found a way to connect its enrollees to school. The young students are identified for the program in the ninth grade and receive support for at least four years after high school graduation. In more than seven years of operation, the IMP has retained every enrolled youngster; all have a high school diploma or GED, and all graduates have been accepted to college. This stellar performance is achieved at an annual cost of only $3,381 per student (in the 2010-11 academic school year). Each IMP youngster has a "family" of up to 10 volunteers, mostly Johns Hopkins University graduate and undergraduate students. The volunteers devote anywhere from a couple of hours to more than 30 hours per week to IMP; their volunteering is what keeps costs down.

Beginning in 2010, the IMP began to connect enrollees to careers. In the first summer, 16 youngsters obtained summer jobs, their wages paid through Baltimore City YouthWorks. The IMP is planning for more than 60 placements next summer at different Hopkins laboratories, community situations and offices. The goal is to have all the students become exemplary workers who have demonstrated career behaviors needed in most workplaces. We teach them how to act responsibly, manage their time effectively, communicate, evaluate and record information, and collaborate in the performance of their job tasks.

My experience with four IMP youngsters last summer illustrates this process. Their summer jobs had two purposes: to encourage adults to participate in a weight-loss program and to make their peers aware of the advantages of adopting a healthy diet and exercise routine. The first goal entailed calling the adults; the second involved making presentations to groups of fellow students. In the process, the students learned career behaviors. They arrived on time, established priorities, took speech lessons, made PowerPoint slides, critiqued their presentations, collected data in spreadsheets, shared ideas and worked in teams. Each earned a document certifying to their performance; it should be helpful when they look for a job or apply to college. (As a bonus, two of the students and two of their IMP family members were brought on a tour of the White House. They were lucky enough to see President Barack Obama emerge and wave in their direction before climbing into the helicopter.)

The plan for this summer is to expand the numbers substantially in the Homewood and East Baltimore communities. Beyond that, the hope is to export two IMP ideas sufficiently to visibly "move the needle" in Baltimore and beyond. The first idea is providing "wraparound services" via a network of volunteers. The IMP "family" sees to it that the students receive the social, health care, tutoring, and even legal services they need to overcome the obstacles to academic success that they face in their daily lives.

The second idea is connecting them to careers by intentionally teaching them the behaviors and skills they need for professional success and giving them a "verified resume" of their performance in a summer job. If the job is directed to a community problem, such as obesity, the connection to community is also strengthened.

My granddaughters and other fortunate youngsters may not be fully aware of how much their families facilitate their connections to successful adult roles. The IMP teenagers most likely are.

Arnold Packer, a retired senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies, served as assistant secretary of labor in the Carter administration. His e-mail is

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