When August Valentine transferred from the District’s McKinley Technology High School to Spingarn High School as a sophomore last year, her credits didn’t.
“I was considered a 9.5,” she said. She was not really a freshman, but not quite a sophomore.
In addition to adjusting to a new school and taking a full course load, she also took night classes twice a week for a semester to get back on track. “I was really having a hard time,” she said.
So she went to Mentors Inc. — a nonprofit organization that matches D.C. public and charter high school students with the city’s professionals — to find someone who could give her the encouragement she needed.
For 26 years, Mentors has been making those connections in a quest to get more students across the stage on graduation day. It’s a five-person operation that Deirdre Bagley, Mentor’s executive director, estimates has reached 5,000 students over the years.
After an initial “match party,” during which students meet their mentors over pizza and chicken wings at the group’s offices off McPherson Square, the relationship takes place entirely on a pair’s own time, unlike mentoring programs that are run through schools. Bagley said that’s a big factor in the 80 percent of mentoring pairs who stay together for at least a year. Some stay close for years after.
And although college enrollment isn’t specifically part of the organization’s mission, Bagley said many students continue their education.
When the group’s student recruiter, Rameka Blakely, goes into high school classrooms across the city, most in wards 7 and 8, the students often have big plans for themselves that might not square with the reality around them. “There’s a disconnect,” Blakely said.
Many students don’t know anyone who has gone to college. Even the path to high school graduation can seem elusive.
Valentine, who on this day sports frosting-pink lipstick, long braids and bright teal on her nails, has always wanted to go to college but wasn’t sure how to do it. The self-possessed but sometimes shy junior thinks she might want to be a journalist but struggles with public speaking. Her GPA still isn’t where she wants it to be, she said, but “I know my teachers see me trying.”
Working with her mentor, financial analyst Sheila Harrison, she said she’s getting the encouragement she needs to meet her goals. Harrison wakes up early every day to go running and, for the past few weeks, Valentine has done the same, starting her days at 5:30 a.m. “She’s inspiring me,” Valentine said.
Valentine has also started branching out more, finding new friends and new things to do in the city. She and Harrison go to bookstores, restaurants and neighborhood cookouts together. They talk regularly. Harrison often texts her in the morning: “Have an A+ day.”
That kind of support can make a real difference. “These are kids who could go either way,” Bagley said.
Many come in with clear goals but lack the support needed to accomplish them, she said. Others simply want to talk with someone.
This past year, Mentors expanded its reach to include eighth-graders in a pilot program. The goal is to reduce attrition rates in the first year of high school, when students struggle to make the academic and social adjustments needed to succeed.
Mentors pairs the freshmen-to-be with professionals, using funding from the United Way of the National Capital Area. As part of the pilot program, Mentors partners with a nonprofit group called City Year, whose volunteers work on site with students at D.C. middle schools.
Bagley said the group plans to put a $25,000 grant from the Washington Post Charities awarded in the summer toward expanding that program as well as toward general operating costs.
After Mentors started recruiting specifically in higher-need wards seven years ago, its results have actually improved. For the past two years, 100 percent of the program’s senior-year proteges have graduated.
Bagley, who grew up in Silver Spring, said her work gives her a different perspective on the difficult educational issues related to student achievement and D.C.’s graduation rate, which hovers around 60 percent. “My belief is, we raise them,” she said, “so if we’re talking about them, we’re really talking about us.”