When Forti Smith moved to Rochester as a high school freshman from Baltimore, he stayed in his shell instead of making new friends.
"The whole summer, I stayed home," he said.
He said he felt like an outsider at John Marshall High School and didn’t know how to make new friends or connect with teachers. So he put on a scowl, and decided the people around him weren’t worth getting to know.
"I kept myself from getting to know good people," said Smith, who just completed his sophomore year at John Marshall.
Things got worse when Smith began falling behind in class. Then he learned about a mentor program called Dreamline academic intervention that offers help for students who are struggling academically, disengaged from school or underachieving. Mentors have worked with more than 300 Rochester Public Schools students since the program began in the fall of 2017.
"I thought, I don’t know what it is, but hey, I get out of class," Smith said.
He met Martin Kambaki, a Dreamline program mentor who offered some tutoring, patience and a sympathetic ear.
"He makes me feel like I can do stuff and like someone cared," Smith said.
"The first thing we do is we take time building relationships with students," said Leanna Larson, Dreamline program regional manager. "Once we build those relationships, then we have accountability."
Accountability means staying on task, working on homework or projects for class.
Dreamline is an initiative from The Sanneh Foundation in St. Paul. Program leaders have been working with lawmakers and school districts across Minnesota to help close academic achievement disparities for ethnic minorities.
Students have five minutes to text, chat, or even sit with their eyes closed before getting to work.
"We try to keep their brains working," Kambaki said.
Kambaki shares the John Marshall High School classroom with Laura Schoeman.
"A lot of people need people like Martin and Laura in their lives," said Myari Glover, who completed her junior year at John Marshall.
Many students who struggle academically don’t have support or help.
Smith recalls asking for help in science.
"My science teacher would just literally read the question again," he said.
Some students might not want to ask for help in front of their peers.
"I don’t even ask for help in class," said Kaykay Marshall, who just completed her sophomore year at John Marshall.
Some students might have family support but not the academic help they need.
Kambaki recalled hearing the usual encouragement from family members. Then he met a teacher his senior year who reached out and said he saw potential in Kambaki.
"This is somebody outside my home who believes in me," Kambaki recalled. "He really opened up that avenue and said, ‘You can do this.’"
"It’s just that little stuff you don’t see in an everyday classroom," said Nadya Christenson, who just completed her sophomore year at John Marshall.
Christenson started going to the Dreamline classroom after she heard about it from Marshall. Christenson said she saw a positive affect from the program on her friend.
Each of the students said the program has helped them academically.
Smith reports steady "C"s in math — a big improvement from failing like he was before.
"I’m still terrible at math," he said.