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After-School, College-Readiness Program Shifts Focus to Younger Students

A small, after-school program in Washington has learned that earlier is indeed better when it comes to helping boys become college ready.

College Tribe first reached out to rising high school seniors in the summer after their junior year.  Starting in 2007, volunteers worked with young, African-American teenagers to prepare them for college by helping them fill out college applications, prepare for the SAT, visit campuses, and get ready to live independently by learning about financial management, cooking, and etiquette.

While successful with the first dozen graduates of the program, the organization's board decided in 2010 that younger boys in grades 3-8 needed help the most.

"We didn't have the resources for all it," said Peter Clare, the executive director of College Tribe, which has four paid staff members and is funded by private foundations and businesses.  "We realized things needed to be addressed earlier in their careers in school."

If boys don't have the basic math and literacy skills in elementary and middle school, they will not be prepared for high school or college, said Clare. For instance, students need to know their multiplication tables by 3rd grade to be able to make it through trigonometry in 10th grade.The organization shifted its strategy so students would start to think about college sooner and what courses they need to take to get prepared.

College Tribe's after-school program includes robotics, chess, and video game design, geared at igniting a curiosity in science, technology, math and engineering.  In the "genius club," boys do their homework and get tutoring help from volunteers.

Mentoring is at the heart of the organization's work. Last year, it worked with 39 boys and this year 81 from four, local public schools—pairing them with African-American men who can serve as role models. The mentors meet with the boys about three times a month often at the Covenant Baptist Church on Capitol Hill, where the organization is based, and other times going on trips to cultural attractions around the city.

Beyond the rewards of school and grades, the hope is that through the experience boys will develop an intrinsic desire to succeed, said Clare. "We want to expose them to multiple careers and give them a greater sense of possible," he said.

Especially in STEM fields, experts say students need early exposure to mentors to visualize possible career paths. A poll out earlier this year from the National Mentoring Partnership found that young people are more likely to aspire to and finish college if they have the encouragement of a mentor in their lives.

On June 7, College Tribe hosted a career day that focused on STEM careers with mentors and representatives from industry doing hands-on projects with the students. For instance, an economist did a game-theory game with the boys and an architect had small groups drawing and constructing buildings with Legos.  The boys also demonstrated the video games they had designed and gave lessons on programming robots to the adults.

College Tribe's new focus seems to be working. Regular assessments of the boys in math and literacy shows their skills are improving over time.  "It has allowed to us take deeper dives with the boys we have and develop a better relationship with them and their parents," he said. As the boys age out of the program, parents are asking where they can go next to continue to find support as they progress through high school.

Trey Robertson, 34, has been volunteering as a mentor to 5th grader Sean Beach since August. He agrees with the early start and getting students in the frame of mind to excel before high school. "Why start a program in 11th or 12th grade, when students' academic records start in 8th or 9th?" he said.

Robertson, who has a master's degree in music and works as a registration music specialist in the Library of Congress, said that he is working with Sean to aim high. "What I'm most surprised most about is a mentality of mediocrity," he said. Robertson said he is trying to instill in Sean a desire to be successful and be a voice of encouragement.

Robertson said he was raised in the South by "a village," including his parents, godparents, aunts, and uncles who provided support.  Although Sean and the boys in the program may see themselves as disadvantaged, Robertson said their futures come down to how they view themselves. "You have to start planting the seeds now," he said. "You need to help create the atmosphere and discipline to be competitive and go to college when they get older."

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