UrbanFUTURE Rallies Community Around Educating Its Own
BY STEPHANIE NOECKER
Arch City Chronicle
July 11 - July 24, 2006
When a child reaches 6th grade reading at only a 2nd grade level, to say that student is at a disadvantage is an understatement. If that child also lacks exposure to any educational opportunities outside the classroom and cannot imagine spending time studying for tomorrow because they are preoccupied with simply surviving today, the future looks bleak indeed--but not if the mentors at UrbanFUTURE have anything to say about it.
The non-profit organization, located on South Grand, realized that providing guidance to kids at the critical middle school years pulls up their grades, builds their confidence and offers them a platform from which they can make solid decisions about high school and the future. The mentoring program, known as [INSPIRE], is based on a model in which the mentor, the classroom teacher and the student’s parent cooperate to form a support structure that encourages the child to focus on homework and make good choices about time management.
Since 2001, UrbanFUTURE has worked closely with the staff and parents at Fanning Middle School on the city’s South Side. Participating students have recorded dramatic achievements in test results and literacy compared to classmates who don’t work with mentors.
Reaching out to parents and involving them in the program was the first challenge President Frank Van Bree confronted when he took over the program in 2001. "Getting families to trust that the educational system is a pathway is tough," he says, "but if we do it, we can change the world."
Today, parents of UrbanFUTURE kids are the program’s strongest advocates and UrbanFUTURE’s ‘pathway’ goes beyond one-to-one mentoring. Through its explore! program, UrbanFUTURE also works with the businesses in the community to give the students insight and inspiration for their careers. The concentration of businesses on and around South Grand is one of the factors that makes Fanning Middle School the perfect pilot for developing these multifaceted student support programs. "We’re committed to doing this here, because we’ve got the community engaged," says Van Bree.
To his point, last year’s Explore! students were able to visit more than 60 South Side businesses and organizations and then published a community resource guide. They handled all the interviewing and writing, and learned a lot about production, publishing and their community in the process. This year’s program will add internships with local businesses and an explore! bank, sponsored by Commerce Bank, to help students become familiar with basic money management.
Van Bree left a successful marketing career to take over UrbanFUTURE because he saw an even bigger pay-off in doing a job that is important to the kids––and just as important to the city. That same interest in strengthening the urban community has attracted key investors such as Walgreens, Edward Jones, Nestle-Purina, AG Edwards and philanthropist Larry Cohn, who calls UrbanFUTURE’s Explore! program, "an integral part of where St. Louis is headed as a city – a community focused on the education of its young people."
Dan Hamlet, who runs the Edward Jones franchise on South Grand says, "It was exciting to talk with the kids when they interviewed me for the community resource guide. Many of them come from an environment where money and business is not real to them. If a program like this can plant the seeds and start the dream machine turning in their heads, there’s no telling what they’ll be able to do."
That vision and Van Bree’s creative energy have energized the program in the past few years and put it on a fast pace for expansion. This year’s class of 6th graders at Fanning will include 40 new participants in the after school mentoring program, which has led to a campaign to recruit an additional 60 mentors for this fall.
Mentor Tricia Araund joined UrbanFUTURE in March of this year, after she was robbed on South Grand by a 15 year-old boy. "I remember thinking, ‘Why isn’t he in school?’" says Araund. She then joined UrbanFUTURE seeking an understanding of where her assailant might have been coming from. Today, Araund mentors a 12 year-old girl and says it has been a wonderful and humbling experience. "I took her to get her 1st library card," she says. "It was amazing for her because she doesn’t see herself as having options like that. Many kids simply see themselves as victims–– as products of their environment." When Araund compares the students’ experiences to those of her own kids, she says "it’s humbling to see what the kids go through––it’s poverty on multiple levels. But, if I can get to know even one child, I feel I’m making a difference––at least in this community."
Learn more about becoming a mentor at www.urbanfuturestl.org.