Charlotte’s most at-risk kindergarteners are getting a paid mentor – for 12 years

A new program for Charlotte kindergarteners will help those in the worst conditions find a mentor.
A new program for Charlotte kindergarteners will help those in the worst conditions find a mentor. AP

A program that will pair low-income Charlotte children with a paid mentor from kindergarten through high school is being unveiled this week for Charlotte.

Called Friends of the Children, the national model will be anchored at Thompson Child & Family Focus, a nonprofit well known in the community for helping at-risk and abused children. No matter what the child does in those 12 years, he or she will not be kicked out of the program, organizers said.

Kindergartners selected to participate will be those most at risk of becoming troubled teens. That means their parents may be homeless or living in poverty, with limited job skills and a criminal background. Thousands of families in Charlotte fall into that category, some of them living in shelters and others sleeping on the couches of friends and relatives.

The program comes to Charlotte with a proven track record: Studies show 83 percent of the children in the program elsewhere went on to graduate, 93 percent avoided the juvenile criminal justice system and 98 percent avoided early parenting. As a result, millions of dollars in social service and tax dollars are saved, studies show.

Thompson is introducing the program into the community specifically in response to the findings of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, which put out a call for action after a national study ranked Charlotte last among 50 large cities when it comes to economic mobility. That means Charlotteans born in poverty are likely to stay impoverished all their lives.

It’s that lack of economic mobility that some say contributed to the days of violence that erupted in uptown Charlotte last year, after the fatal police shooting of a black suspect named Keith Lamont Scott.

The nonprofit Friends of the Children is awarding Thompson $600,000 to start an affiliate program in the city. Thompson is matching the money, which is enough to fund the program for the next three years. Charlotte beat out 10 other communities across the nation to win the award, according to Friends of the Children.

Thompson intends to start the program along the city’s West Boulevard corridor, identifying children ages 5 to 6 facing the highest risks. Children will be chosen using a Friends of the Children assessment tool, in partnership with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Communities In Schools, the Department of Social Services and other community partners.

It will kick off in the spring, employing two mentors and serving 16 youths in the first year. By year five, the goal is to serve 192 youth, committing to each of them for 12.5 years, no matter what. Even children who quit school will not be dropped from the program, organizers said.

Will Jones, CEO of Thompson, said he sought to create a Friends of the Children program in Charlotte, despite requiring additional fundraising for his agency. His hope is that foundations and corporations in the city will step up to add additional money to continue the program. Either way, he said, Thompson will be supplying critical funding to make it work.

“Human services programs have continued to do the same things, over and over, for years and we get shocked when we don’t get different outcomes,” Jones said. “This program definitely creates upward mobility for children raised in poverty. We are talking about children at a high risk of a negative life outcome, based on the circumstances they are facing even at the kindergarten level. And this program will follow them as long as they stay in the community. That friend and mentor sticks with them, to keep them on the right track.”

One in five children in Mecklenburg County currently live in poverty, the majority of them black or Hispanic, according to data from the the Council for Children’s Rights.

The latest U.S. Census data indicates that in Mecklenburg County, that 24,558 children age 4 and under live in households earning below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Among children ages 4 to 5, more than 6,000 live in households earning below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

Friends of the Children was founded in 1993 in Portland, Oregon, and has chapters or affiliates in more than a dozen cities. A study found that for every $1 invested in the program the community gets a $7 return, according to the agency. That’s $900,000 saved in social services over a child’s lifetime, said Terri Sorensen, president of Friends of the Children.

Charlotte was chosen to be an affiliate site in part because of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force showed a level of commitment other towns lacked, she said. She also liked that Will Jones said Thompson Child & Family Focus wanted to host the program whether or not it won the $600,000 grant.

“I’m really impressed that Charlotte came together to identify as a community what it could do to help children and families struggling the most,” Sorensen said of the task force report. “We are a big investment, but what we’ve seen in other cities is that individuals, corporations, foundations and government see a return on their investment.”