Dana Brown: Malden Students Advocate

Guest post written by Dana Brown, principal of Malden High School in Massachusetts and Summer Search Boston volunteer leader and advocate.

Malden High School has the most diverse student body in all of Massachusetts but it’s also one of the region’s most economically disadvantaged schools. Our students are caught in the middle.

On one hand, many non-profit and corporate programs aimed at helping disadvantaged school districts are disproportionately showered on the Boston Public Schools, sidelining nearby urban districts like Malden. Meanwhile, our students also lack access to the same resources as their peers in nearby higher-income suburbs. As a result, many bright and capable students risk falling through the cracks without the support to keep them motivated through the challenges of adolescence, high school and college.

Here at Malden High, we don’t talk about the achievement gap so much as the opportunity gap.

In my 13 years as principal, I’ve come to realize that sometimes all a kid needs is an opportunity, an assurance that someone believes in him or has her back. For more than a decade, we’ve worked with Summer Search, a nationwide mentoring program that supports low-income students to graduate high school, go to college and become thoughtful, civic-minded leaders in their communities.

Students selected for the program are assigned a professional mentor who stays in touch with them for at least five years. Students also embark on character-challenging summer trips with organizations such as Outward Bound where they interact with peers from different cultures and income brackets. Our Summer Search participants aren’t selected based on their grades or their activities, but for who they are. The program seeks students who are altruistic and empathetic, students who, in their own ways, always try to do the right thing. It also takes an interest in our at-risk students who may not always do the right thing, but have good hearts. Together, we understand that the right amount of support, the right break at the right time, can be transformative.

This kind of motivation, this fight against resignation, is what our Summer Search students take away from the program. The students are required to check in with a mentor at least once a week throughout the first two years in the program while they’re in high school. Conversations can range from school work to family issues and everything in between. Some of these kids have never been able to express themselves with family, school staff or peers. Mentors crack open their worldview and force young people out of their comfort zones, to discuss their dreams and aspirations. In many ways, the kids are meant to feel a little uncomfortable. Few high school students in this area have had the opportunity to travel to places like El Salvador or Italy or go on trust-building backcountry excursions usually reserved for more privileged teens. These trips are, in fact, designed to test and develop their ability to thrive in unfamiliar settings with people they don’t know.

Most of our Summer Search kids return from their summer trips with sharper social and emotional skills like patience, confidence, and interpersonal communication. Throughout the school year, mentors continue to nurture these characteristics in ways that will equip the students with the necessary tools to overcome obstacles they face academically and in the real world.

The level of support our students receive outside and inside of school from their Summer Search peers, mentors and liaisons is unparalleled.

All high schools in America should have a long-term mentoring program like this one.

It’s rare for students to truly grow from a guest speaker series or a short-term prep course. Only a years-long, hands-on program can achieve real, sustainable success. With Summer Search, this support extends after high school graduation, right through four years of college, in tune with the program’s focus on increasing the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree.

I’ve seen firsthand the transformation that comes from long-term mentoring. One young lady, in particular, comes to mind. She was always a hard worker and a bright student but she’s gone from a soft-spoken, reticent girl to a more empowered and confident young woman with her eye on higher education. She knows her opinion counts and her voice matters. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Many of our Summer Searchers have also become class officers, volunteers in our Key Club and members of the National Honor Society. Over more than a dozen years, I have known only a couple of external programs that have such a life changing effect on our students. When I hand the reins of Malden High School to Mr. Ted Lombardi this year, I’m sure he will be impressed with the extraordinary value of this program and our successful partnership.

We are so grateful to Dana for his incredible dedication to all his students and his support of Summer Search Boston. This strong and impactful partnership is just one legacy that he will leave as he retires at the end of this year.

Over his 13 years as school principal, he has been known for showing up for all the important parts of his students’ lives and we are honored that he has joined our Boston Board of Overseers and will continue to be an important part of the Summer Search family.