Established in 2018 through the merger of Community Tutoring, Inc. and Mentoring to Manhood (M2M), 2021 Partner Grantee Community Youth Advance (CYA) delivers year-round academic enrichment, mentoring, and college and career readiness activities to more than 600 students in grades K-12 in Prince George’s County, MD and Washington, DC. CYA’s mission is to fill existing gaps and harness the power of community, during out of school time, to help underprivileged youth excel in school and life. CYA’s programs promote academic excellence, build character, and prepare youth to meet life’s challenges.

In recognition of National Mentoring Month, Many Hands Board member Charis Keitelman sat down with CYA’s new Executive Director, Jhae Thompson, to learn more about CYA’s work and to chat about the impact of the ongoing pandemic and how CYA has used the Many Hands Partner Grant.

January is National Mentoring Month. Could you tell about your two signature mentoring programs, Mentoring to Manhood and Lily Sisterhood?

CYA’s flagship mentoring program, Mentoring to Manhood, was founded in 2005 by four men concerned about the plight and limited future of boys in the African American community. M2M provides weekly tutoring, group mentoring activities, and family support to more than 150 middle and high school-aged boys. M2M is one of the largest mentoring programs successfully responding to the needs of young boys in Prince George’s County.

Building on the success of M2M and recognizing that girls could also benefit greatly from such a program in the Washington, DC metro area, CYA founded Lily Sisterhood Girls Mentoring to help girls develop critical thinking skills, self-awareness, a positive self-image, and authentic self-confidence through fun and interactive lessons. Piloted at Brookland Middle School in DC and currently serving approximately 15 girls annually in grades 6-8, Lily Sisterhood follows a school-based model with targeted programming during the school day at lunch time and experiential learning trips during out of school time.

All of the students in M2M and Lily Sisterhood receive one to one mentoring, and most participate in our group mentoring programming, the Village, throughout the month. Small groups of mentees work with the guidance of a mentor and a facilitator to execute a youth-driven project focused on academic achievement, career development, civic engagement, or personal responsibility. Our objective is for students to learn more about issues that are important to them in their communities, be able to engage in positive dialogue, and identify ways they can take action and make a difference in their community.

What makes CYA’s mentoring programs successful?

The youth CYA serve benefit by getting targeted support. We learn their individual needs through testing (academics) and building relationships (mentoring) in order to provide support that is holistic and most impactful. We give youth strong academic footing and also expose them to new possibilities–through college tours, experiential learning, and field trips–that develop opportunity for their future. Our mentors focus on giving support to keep students engaged and motivated. One student said, “My mentors helped me not only overcome academic challenges, but a few behavioral challenges too. Each mentor held me accountable. By the end of the 3rd quarter, I had more B’s than ever and managed to stay out of the principal’s office the entire year.”

What are the greatest challenges facing the families you serve, midway through the third year of schooling affected by the pandemic?

As with most areas, the pandemic has hit students of color and low-income students the hardest in terms of the impact on social emotional health and overall social development. CYA adapted to the pandemic quickly, infusing mental health within our academic and mentoring programming in an integrated way to support the developmental needs of our youth. Through CYA’s GoVirtual model, launched in April of 2020, CYA was able to provide academic enrichment and social emotional development through virtual tutoring and family engagement activities in arts, culture, food, and more, even during the lockdown phase of the pandemic. CYA staff members developed training modules for families and students, as well as a communication plan to keep families engaged.

While our programs helped greatly to lessen the academic impact of the pandemic on the students in our program, we cannot ignore the toll the pandemic has had on the mental health, social emotional learning, and developmental growth of the young people that we serve. We see what we refer to as “unfinished learning,” rather than learning loss. “Unfinished learning” speaks to the agency that young people possess in their learning and the outlook that recovery and progress are possible. We look at our current 10th grade students, for example, who missed the entire developmental experience of going from being 8th graders at the top of the food chain to being 9th graders and having to navigate their way as the youngest and smallest in a new school and learn essential skills while doing so. They have missed this entire experience. They are at risk of finishing school without the skills, behaviors, and mindsets to succeed in college or in the workforce.

Many Hands funding helped CYA launch its virtual Train-the-Trainer Academy. Can you tell us about Train-the-Trainer and CYA’s goals for the program?

Train-the-Trainer provides high performing 7th-12th grade students (with a GPA of at least 3.0) with five weeks of training as individual tutors, followed by shadowing and a close monitoring period. They then serve as online tutors for fellow students and receive a monthly stipend. The program helps tutors build leadership skills and a deeper understanding of core concepts and increases CYA’s capacity to provide 1:1 tutoring.

Although CYA’s primary work is in out-of-school time, you mentioned that you are excited about new in-school programming. Could you share more about this?

Through the model programming that we have at Brookland Middle School, CYA is looking to expand its school day programming to provide group mentoring in middle schools to support the social emotional needs of students. We will be leveraging work that we are doing in Prince George’s County with schools who have found that students have become disengaged throughout the pandemic during virtual learning. CYA plans to leverage existing school relationships and the years of experience in group mentoring work to provide school day programming.

What makes the Many Hands grant process a unique opportunity for an organization like CYA? Was there any particular part of the grant process that you found most rewarding?

Staff who were part of the process said they got the most out of the final stages of the process, even in the time of COVID. CYA’s site visit was virtual, but more members of the selection committee were able to attend as a result and meet our team. By participating in Many Hands’ annual meeting, members of the CYA team had the opportunity to learn more about the other grantees–some organizations that we knew, some that we did not. We also got to know members of the Education Committee and the Board as they learned more about us. We learned about their “why”, their families, etc. The process definitely made us feel more connected than the usual grantor-grantee relationship because we learned about their missions individually and as a whole.

You joined CYA as Executive Director this past fall. What most excites you about this job?

Today is my 67th day on the job, and I am still on my listening and learning tour. I am excited about the opportunity to work with  Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), both because I am a Prince George’s County resident and because of the opportunity to partner with the PGCPS in a way that was not possible in my previous positions in the District of Columbia. In the short time I have been with Community Youth Advance, I have leveraged the relationships that CYA has built with the Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO and the administrative team to work effectively in the schools that we serve.