Nine years ago, Matthew Weinberg, CEO of Weinberg Group, a global business consulting firm, walked into three Baltimore City and County high schools with a more or less blank check, wanting to invest in high academic achievers he believed were underserved by the system. The need in the workplace he was most focused on: science- and technology-related fields.
He started out with 18 students, hoping to get them thinking about a career direction.
Fast forward to 2008, and what started as an act of social proactiveness impacting a few sharp, economically-disadvantaged kids has catalyzed into something way bigger than Weinberg had imagined. The upward mobility program, known as Building Science, Technology, and Education Partnerships, Inc., or STEPS, accepts roughly 60 high school juniors and 40 seniors a year from nine Baltimore high schools, has helped the students obtain more than $3 million in scholarship offers, and now offers a spectrum of support programs.
"STEPS participants are often from broken homes in rough neighborhoods," says Debra Hettleman Plant, executive director of Building STEPS. "They are typically the first in their families to go to college. They go to schools where the teachers and administration are overwhelmed, and because these high achievers are the 'good kids,' they are all but left on their own, with little guidance."
Nearly 160 students have graduated from the program to date, 150 of whom went on to college—almost unheard of in a city with a 35 percent high-school graduation rate.
Weinberg's motive for launching the program was both business- and humanitarian-driven. The 50-year-old entrepreneur was taken aback that "there were whole parts of society that were not represented in the job applicants who came to my firm," he says. "I personally believe that the more balanced the workforce, the better the company is at what it does."
What makes the program successful is that students aren't just told what to do, but shown how to do it, says Plant. They are supported through activities that range from mock interviews to guidance in studying for the SATs.
Once a month, students' textbooks are retired to their lockers and the kids go out to hospitals, banks, and elsewhere for a taste of the real working world. Sometimes they are introduced to specialized niches they never knew existed, and just after their junior year, they work in paid internships.
STEPS continues to thrive with support from 100 partners—mainly foundations, colleges, and businesses, including The Abell Foundation, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Walman Optical in Baltimore, various Johns Hopkins institutions, and other contributors.
"What these students are showing potential backers is that they are succeeding against the odds," says Plant. Those success stories include a student in pre-med with a full ride to Johns Hopkins University; lawyers; a financial analyst; and postgraduates going for dual degrees.
Sarah Bradford, a recent graduate from Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore City, will study nursing at Towson University with a full scholarship. The only one of five siblings to go to college, she recalls a number of experiences in STEPS that further fueled her drive to succeed—including something as simple as a rope-climbing challenge.
"I got to the second rope and fell. [My peers and Debra] kept telling me to get back up and pull hard," she recalls.
Kieara Thomas, a STEPS graduate and math major at Towson University, has every bit of Bradford's drive. Living with her mother, a single parent working two jobs, Thomas was in the top 5 percent of her high school class. She served as class president, ran track, was in the National Honor Society, and now mentors STEPS graduates attending Towson University.
"Everybody is looking at me to see how I'm going to do," she says. "What I will show them is that I am definitely going to make it."