Myiah Smith always had trouble balancing her responsibilities. The high school sophomore put an immense amount of pressure on herself. You could hear it in her voice.
“I don’t want to go to [just] any college,” she said. “I want to go to the best school there is.”
Thus, her mentor, Ellen Gee, an epidemiologist at the Department of Defense, has never had to push her to get good grades. Instead, she has helped Myiah put grades into perspective.
The two were paired by Capital Partners for Education (CPE), a nonprofit that helps low-income teens in the Washington area graduate from high school. When they first met, Myiah was an eighth-grader at the SEED School of Washington, a charter school. Now she’s a 15-year-old sophomore, ever more successful in her studies.
CPE provides mentoring, workshops and community service experience to more than 200 students. Ninety-nine percent of the program’s graduates enroll in college.
Founded in 1993, the organization received a $30,000 grant in June from The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund dedicated to increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and teens in the region.
“The thing that I love about CPE, and what I really try to focus on, is seeing all of the challenges that our kids have, just coming from low-income neighborhoods and having families that haven’t gone to college,” Executive Director Khari Brown said. “CPE really provides a whole host of wraparound services that can fill in a lot of those gaps and help kids reach their potential.”
After coaching high school and college basketball in the Boston area for six years, Brown realized that even the most motivated kids wouldn’t attend college if they weren’t immersed in an academically rigorous high school environment.
He joined CPE in 2001 and has since expanded the organization, adding more students and volunteers and forming partnerships with schools and organizations.
Students must apply to the program after being accepted to one of the private or public charter high schools that are CPE’s partners. CPE provides up to $4,500 per year for students to attend a private school, or $1,000 per year in college scholarships if students attend a charter school. The organization has begun exploring partnerships with D.C. public high schools.
CPE also provides weekend workshops on topics such as tips for college applications, finding a career, résumé writing, interview skills, financial literacy and community service.
At the heart of the CPE model is its mentoring program, which attracts more than 200 volunteers each year.
Gee, 32, said she had always wanted to be a mentor to a child, but the time commitment and doubts held her back. She chose CPE, she said, because “their mission was very specific” compared with similar programs.
“I think I’m pretty cool,” she said, “but I thought, ‘Can I relate to a high school student?’ ”
Gee and Smith have developed an extremely close relationship, socializing with other CPE members and hiking about once a month. They e-mail each other almost daily.
For others, finding time to spend with a mentor can be tricky.
Sarah Ghermay, 24, is a CPE alumna who attended Cornell University and teaches at a charter school in Boston. In high school, she lived with a single parent and had a part-time job, which at first made it difficult for her to hang out with her mentor, she said. But that quickly changed.
“My mentor wasn’t someone that just checked my grades, but she took me to things you need exposure to to understand how the world works,” Ghermay said. “You’re not going to be motivated to do well if you don’t know what the outcome will look like. She allowed me to be a kid and kind of moved me from having to take care of others.”
Problems students face in high school don’t disappear once they reach college. Often, they are amplified. More than half of first-generation college students drop out within the first year, mainly because of financial stresses.
Brown said that although the organization has talked about expanding outside greater Washington, there’s still more work to be done here.
“Moving here from out of town, it’s a little discouraging to see that there’s two Washingtons,” Brown said. “We’re breaking down some of those barriers and forming a bridge to the two Washingtons. How else are we going to solve the problems we have in our society if people don’t get involved?”