Program helping Baltimore city kids 'bridge' gap to success

For many inner city kids, summer can mean fearing an uptick in violence, and also sitting around with not a whole lot to do. "Bridges" is a summer program giving many of those kids not just a place to go and learn, but it's giving them lessons that continue to take shape throughout their lives.
The program, with the help of donors, gives them all of that for less than the cost of a Ravens ticket.
Just before 8:30 on a humid Monday morning during summer in Baltimore County, a group of inner city school kids from northeast Baltimore arrive for summer classes.
Two school buses pull up. The doors open and an excited group of kids jumped out, giving high fives to volunteers, just a few years older, in front of St. Paul's School.
It's time to start their day, one of many in a five-week summer program.
If each of them sticks to a time-tested recipe for success, they will have the opportunity to escape the cycle of violent crime, fear and desperation that grips much of Baltimore's inner city.
A couple years back, there was a murder on my street, said Jared Johnson, a rising sophomore at Baltimore City College. "And to see someone laying dead on the streets...."
He let his voice trail off.
Johnson said the image paints a heaviness he knows all too well, bearing the weight of taking care of his diabetic mother, and being the man of the house.
With Bridges, he's building a foundation for a better tomorrow, saying that he already has decided he wants to go to college to become a marine biologist or an audio engineer.
"There are a lot of students who are pretty motivated when they're young. But life can get complicated," said Rob Paymer, the Executive Director of the program, a kind of wide-scale, classroom based enrichment for kids during the summer. He joined the program ten years ago, becoming the first full-time staff member.
During the five weeks, classrooms are full of kids learning math, science and literature. But where this program differs is in its one-of-a-kind approach, one that literally follows the kids for life.
"We take this long term focus because over the years we've seen kids who were good students in fourth and fifth, and then struggle when they get to middle school," Paymer said.
Bridges starts when kids are nominated to take part in the program by their regular school teachers as they leave third grade and enter the fourth. They're the students who show promise, but may need a little long-term guidance to get across the finish line," Paymer said.
Once in the program, they're shaped and molded, getting targeted direction to stay on track. During the school year, tutors and mentoring relationships are made available.
Johnson said he thought the program has "most definitely" changed his life, describing himself as a shy, self-described momma's boy when he started the program in fourth grade, but has learned how to break through those limitations because of the mentoring he's received at the program.
But as he sat through a SAT prep class -- while his classmates went through courses on interviewing and crafting college essays -- the measure of the program became clear for Johnson to grasp.
"Through this program, right now I work at the Baer School, he said. "If I wasn't doing that, I would be outside just probably sitting on the steps."
During the course of the summer, the high school students are put into job programs, many of which are supplied by the city's Youth Works initiative, and many more offered through partnerships with doctors and lawyers, where students are paid to learn future skills.
One such program, offered through Bridges and Outward Bound, allowed Tasmine Prater to take part in a three week sailing expedition off the coast of Maine. The summer he spent on the water eventually led to getting a job at the Baltimore's Downtown Sailing Center after being connected with the opportunity through Bridges.
"It went from 'Okay, this is a cool summer camp,' to 'This can actually take me somewhere really impressive," Prater said.
The job is helpful, he said, in paying for his college education. He'll be a junior at the University of Maryland-College Park this fall where he studies astronomy and physics, and wants to work for NASA after he graduates. Realizing his own potential in making that happen is owed to Bridges, he said.
"We expect to to be really partners with kids and their parents," Paymer said.  When he took over the program, it included just a few dozen students. That number has now swelled to 200 students after they opened a second location at Gilman School in Roland Park.
They're also starting to help kids as they get into college, and are formalizing that role, Paymer said. The goal there is to make sure they get as many kids through college as possible.
The programs ultimate successes aren't measured in numbers, though; they come in lives touched and hope given.
And for Johnson, who plans to be the first person in his family to go to college, that's a concept larger than a few summers spent in a classroom.  
"In 20 years I see myself still learning, trying to make myself better than I am now," he said.
"I don't want to stop."
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