We need more near-term solutions for Boston’s public school students

By Wendy Foster
Special to the Reporter

Education is the most effective tool to provide students with upward mobility, yet according to data from Boston Public Schools and The Boston Foundation, a ninth grader in the system today has less than a 20 percent chance of graduating from a four-year college. The challenge is even greater for students who will be the first in their family to go to college and have to navigate the process with little help.

There is a tremendous opportunity to improve how we, as a society, are helping Massachusetts students succeed in their academic careers. With hundreds of students now facing displacement in our Dorchester and Roxbury communities as a result of the closings of the John W. McCormack Middle School, Roxbury’s Urban Science Academy, and West Roxbury Academy, there is worry of overcrowding and under-staffing, which will only exacerbate the issue. And while BuildPBS shows hopeful signs of creating long-term success for the school system through investments in new buildings, renovating facilities, and implementing technology, we need to be doing more now.

Local initiatives specifically designed to better our students’ chances of succeeding in school and accessing higher education are rising, such as the recently launched SeedMA Baby program. The initiative – which will begin in January 2020 – has promised that every baby born to, or adopted by, a Massachusetts resident will be eligible for a free $50 seed deposit into a U.Fund 529 college savings account.

While financial planning to pay for college is a crucial step, developing the foundational social and emotional skills critical to student success in high school and college, and having real knowledge about how to prepare for, apply to and select the best post-secondary education option, are just as important – and these steps can be executed almost immediately. Early intervention and individualized support are proven building blocks that can empower students to fulfill their academic potential, yet the average guidance counselor to student ratio is 1 to 450 students. Our students need more mentors and role models who have completed post-secondary education and can uniquely deliver resources beyond classroom learning to provide more customized support.

To address this, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay – in collaboration with Boston Public Schools and iMentor – has partnered with two Boston high schools: the Boston Green Academy and the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. Working together, we established Mentor 2.0 – an innovative, technology-enhanced program that will match every student in these schools with a dedicated, college-educated mentor for all four years of high school. So far, 97 percent of Mentor 2.0 students completed their college applications and 88 percent expect to earn a college degree. Furthermore, students who participate in this program are 59 percent more likely to graduate from college than the national average (26 percent) of youth from low-income communities. None of this would be possible without the commitment of the program’s adult mentors who are volunteering their time and changing the trajectory of our students’ academic careers, one weekly interaction at a time.

While there are many programs and initiatives in place to help address the challenges that students in Dorchester, Roxbury, and beyond are facing, none of them is prepared to address the issue immediately. It is critical that our community join together now to defend the potential of our students by providing them with the dedicated support and resources required for them to succeed academically and professionally. Whether it’s through mentoring, volunteering, advocating or donating, consider how to get involved in our city’s schools and create a brighter future for Boston’s students.

Wendy Foster is the president & CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay.