Rhonda Young held up an imitation ring with an apple-sized diamond. “Think big. You see this ring,” she asked the 12 ninth grade girls packed in a classroom on the third floor of Reginald F. Lewis High School. “This is just the beginning. You have the opportunity to be anything you want to be.”
She handed the ring to the nearest girl who stated her name and a positive adjective to describe herself and passed it along. The group then used magazine cutouts, construction paper and markers to create poster boards displaying their aspirations.
Abiola Martins, a program advocate, said she created the exercise because she wants their dreams to be tangible. “I don’t want them to give up, even if something doesn’t go their way. I want them to see their dreams,” she said.
“The kids love the bling,” Young said with a laugh. “I just want them to know they can get the bling and achieve all these things on their poster board,” she said. “Once you plant that seed, water it, give it some sun. It begins to blossom.”
Young and Martins are program advocates for FUTURES Works, an effort through the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development that helps “at-risk” youth chart paths to college and careers, improve their grades, have family-like support at school, and most importantly, graduate.
They work on-site at Reginald F. Lewis every day, holding goal-setting workshops, offering tutorial services and conducting one-on-one sessions with students. “Often times we are the first role models they see,” Young said. “Many are first generation high school students.”
Reginald F. Lewis is one of three Baltimore City Public Schools that offers the 24-year-old-program and its companion effort called After School Matters, a program that prepares students for the workforce and places them in minimum wage paying jobs throughout the city.
Each school has three program advocates, who work with 60 students each. But the program – which relies heavily on a grant from the city’s general fund –is in jeopardy.
In the city budget proposal Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released last month, she eliminated funding support for the program. She told the AFRO after a press briefing that FUTURES Works has recently lost outside grants, which has “impacted its effectiveness.”
“Their other grant funding had been reduced and that impacted their ability to be successful,” she said. Mayoral officials estimate the number of students participating in the program will decrease from 420 to 180 next year if the budget is approved by the City Council.
Michelle Miles, director of FUTURES Works, says the city funding keeps the programs at Frederick Douglass and Northwestern High Schools afloat, and if the city grant dries up, the FUTURES Works and After School Works programs there might cease. The program at Reginald F. Lewis is supported through a separate grant with the U.S. Dept. of Labor and is secure for at least one more year.
Since the 1980s, FUTURES Works has existed in various city schools. Its previous mission was to target students most easily prone to truancy or with reading and writing deficiencies, but it now serves all ninth and 12 graders at its schools.
Students in the program marvel at the nurturing nature of the advocates, saying they provide holistic counseling and help blot out anything hindering student success, whether it’s a poorly organized class schedule or family issues.
“Students in public schools tend to have a lot of issues at home, from peer pressure, to some legal issues – some are afraid to leave their neighborhood,” said Reginald F. Lewis Principal Barney Wilson. “These students are extremely fortunate to have a group of people that entirely focus on them to help them have a better life.”
Miles said program officials are applying for various outside grants to keep the program at Douglass and Northwestern. FUTURES officials have frequently had to brace for a shutdown at a school because grants usually last one or two years at a time, she added. “I understand the city is in a budget crunch, and I know the mayor and the city care about the welfare of the students,” she said. “We’re hopeful these programs can continue through other sources.”