Why It's Never Too Late To Rescue Failing Students

Jul 9, 2016
Originally published on July 10, 2016 9:05 am

Four guys walk into a diner.

One, in a plaid shirt, sells golf equipment online. His name is Chris Regan. Two — Eric Schiffhauer and Jordan Wagner — are midway through their Ph.D.'s at Johns Hopkins University.

And the other, Jebree Christian, is a recent high school graduate from West Baltimore. His arms are covered in tattoos, most of them commemorating someone he has lost.

Each Sunday, they gather here at Jimmy's on Baltimore's harbor.

What are they doing? Technically, they are part of an effort to change the social fabric of their city, building connections between different sides of town. But mostly, they're laughing.

"Is that a mushroom?" Christian asks in faux outrage when Regan's vegetarian breakfast bowl arrives.

"You are killing animals, man," Regan responds without hesitation, looking down at Christian's bacon and sausage medley.

Hours pass as they banter and reminisce: a failed trip to get a driver's license. A plan to get rich by investing in toilet paper. And a college visit this past year to Ohio State.

"I drove and Jebree slept the entire way," Regan remembers.

"They came and got me at 5 o'clock in the morning," Christian protests.

Growing up fast

There was a time when the idea of Christian going to college was not in the picture.

He grew up in a tough neighborhood where gun violence was common. And, he says, things were particularly challenging after his baby sister died.

"It was a struggle," Christian recalls. "It felt as though I had to mature real fast."

Christian bounced around, from house to house, adult to adult.

He says he learned how to do much of the cooking and cleaning. "At 13, I mean I knew how to do everything there is possible to do." He made sure he got to school on time. "I had a perfect attendance rate all through middle school."

Then, in high school, he hit a rough patch.

"I started hanging with the cool kids," Christian remembers. School was the first casualty. He finished the fall quarter of his freshman year with a GPA of 1.6.

But his low grades qualified him for a second chance — a nonprofit called Thread.

Unlike most programs that select high-scoring, promising young people, Thread chooses those who are most at risk: high school freshmen from Baltimore public schools who are struggling at school and who lack stability at home. The average GPA is 0.15.

Those students are given five volunteers chosen from the community. Together they become a Thread Family.

"The five volunteers do anything you would do for your own child: pack their lunch, give them a ride to school, help them find a summer job," says Sarah Hemminger, Thread's founder.

So how does it work? The five volunteers act as a team. For example, one drives to the student's house to pick her up for school. A few hours later, another goes to the school to see if she's still there. If she's not, another volunteer goes back to the house to drive her back to school.

Thread kids get such intensive support for 10 years, although the number of volunteers tapers off eventually.

Since 2004, Thread has worked with hundreds of students. So far, 92 percent have graduated from high school and 80 percent gone on to complete some form of higher education.

But Hemminger says that's not actually the goal. Instead, her goals for Thread students are the same as her goals for her own daughter. "What I really want is for her to figure out what she's great at in life and I want her to have purpose," she says.

But finding that purpose isn't always easy.

"Every single student I can think of has, at some point, said they are dropping out of Thread," says Hemminger. Her response: "We just ignore it."

Volunteers who keep showing up

Christian remembers that phase. He signed up because there was free pizza at the meetings. But then, he recalls, a volunteer started showing up at his house.

"Who is this man outside my house?" Christian remembers thinking. He refused to come out of the house and, when he did, he told the man he'd come to the wrong house.

Eric Schiffhauer also remembers that phase: "He would throw earphones in his ears and he wouldn't talk to us."

Christian says his big worry was that these guys would disappear within a few week or months, just like every other volunteer and tutor he had known. But Schiffhauer and the other volunteers kept showing up — every day.

Christian says it all changed when they discovered a shared passion: "We love Chipotle."

Soon, they were going to Chipotle for dinner every day — except Sunday, when they have brunch at the diner.

"We've done 12-page research papers in Chipotle. We've applied to college from Chipotle." When the Baltimore riots happened, less than a block from Christian's house, Schiffhauer says, they discussed it at Chipotle.

And there are field trips: visiting colleges, hanging out with Christian's family or getting him a Social Security card and a bank account.

Now, Schiffhauer says, Christian is taking the lead on setting up times to meet and goals to accomplish. "We're sort of transitioning to a period where he's solving his own problems."

But Christian insists they'll still stay in daily touch — even when he heads to college in the fall.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

When kids start hanging out with the wrong crowd and failing high school, it can feel like it gets harder and harder to turn it around. But in Baltimore, a program aimed at just these kids - the ones who are struggling - is hoping to prove that a real investment in them can really pay off. Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed team tells us how.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Just a block from the city's harbor, there's a diner with low ceilings and beige bar stools.

JEBREE CHRISTIAN: I want to have a breakfast bowl - sausage and bacon and tater tots.

EMANUEL: Every Sunday, four guys gather here. Two are midway through their Ph.D.s - Eric Schiffhauer and Jordan Wagner. One, Chris Reagan, in a plaid shirt, sells golf equipment, and the other, Jebree Christian, is a recent high school graduate from West Baltimore. His arms are covered in tattoos, most commemorating someone he's lost.

These four are part of an effort to change the social fabric of Baltimore, building connections between different sides of town. But they never talk about that mission. Instead, they laugh pretty much the entire meal.

CHRISTIAN: Is that mushrooms?

CHRIS REGAN: You are killing animals, man.

CHRISTIAN: I'm not killing no animals. Somebody else killed it.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIAN: They just made this for me.

EMANUEL: And they reminisce about recent memories - a plan to get rich by investing in toilet paper and a college visit to Ohio State.

REGAN: I drove, and Jebree slept the entire way.

CHRISTIAN: They came and got me at 5 o'clock in the morning - brought my whole blanket outside.

(LAUGHTER)

EMANUEL: There was a time when the idea of Jebree going to college was nowhere in the picture. When he was young, things were hard - tough neighborhood, gun violence, a baby sister who died.

CHRISTIAN: It was a struggle. I felt like I had to mature real fast.

EMANUEL: Debris bounced around from house to house, adult to adult.

CHRISTIAN: At 13, I mean, I knew how to do everything there is possible to do - cook, clean, you know, making my bed up, going to school on time. I had a perfect attendance rate all through middle school.

EMANUEL: Then, in high school, he hit a rough patch.

CHRISTIAN: I started hanging with the cool kids.

EMANUEL: School was the first casualty.

CHRISTIAN: Had a 160 GPA my first quarter.

EMANUEL: But that low GPA qualified him for a program called Thread. They take high school freshman who have minimal stability at home and are struggling at school. The average GPA - 0.15. What Thread does is surround those kids with five volunteers.

SARAH HEMMINGER: The five volunteers do anything you would do for your own child.

EMANUEL: Sarah Hemminger is the founder of Thread.

HEMMINGER: So pack their lunch, give them a ride to school, help them find a summer job. And Hemminger says just like a parent or aunt or uncle, it's for the long haul. Each kid gets support every day for 10 years. Since 2004, Thread has worked with hundreds of students. Ninety-two percent of them graduate high school, and eight out of 10 complete some form of higher education. But Hemminger says that's not actually the goal. Instead, her goals for Thread students are the same as her goals for her own daughter, two-year-old Evie.

HEMMINGER: What I really want is her to, like, figure out what she's great at in life, and I want her to have purpose.

EMANUEL: But finding purpose is not always easy.

HEMMINGER: Every single student I can think of has at some point said they're dropping out of Thread. Jebree remembers that phase. He'd signed up because there was free food at the meetings, but then Eric Schiffhauer a volunteer, started showing up at Jebree's house.

CHRISTIAN: I'm looking like, who is this man outside my house? Hey, man, come outside. Come outside? Oh, no.

ERIC SCHIFFHAUER: He would throw earphones in his ears, and he wouldn't talk to us.

EMANUEL: Soon Eric, Jebree and the other volunteers discovered something.

CHRISTIAN: We all shared a common goal. We love Chipotle.

SCHIFFHAUER: We've done 12-page research papers in Chipotle. We've applied to college from Chipotle. When the Baltimore riots happened less than a block from Jebree's house, they discussed it at Chipotle. And there were field trips - visiting colleges, hanging out with Jebree's family or getting Jebree a social security card and a bank account. Now, Eric says, Jebree is taking the lead on setting up times to meet and goals to accomplish.

SCHIFFHAUER: We're sort of transitioning to a period where he's solving his own problems, which is good.

EMANUEL: Good for Jebree, but it's more than that. These four men see each other almost every day, and it feels like family. Jebree Christian says it will stay like that, even when he heads to college in the fall. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.