Freshman year at the selective Baton Rouge High School was tough for Diamond Bell.
A smart and talented artist, Bell always breezed through school before and assumed she would excel into college.
But her “goofing off” was derailing her dreams.
“I just thought that I could go to college, and it would just happen,” the 16-year-old said. “When I started researching it, I knew that I had to stop slacking off. These colleges don’t play. They’re serious about grades.”
Her mother presented her with a solution: Become a “scholar” with the intensive Road to Excellence program from Boys Hope Girls Hope, and dedicate herself to reaching college.
There would be no slacking, and every afternoon and evening would be spent with tutors and mentors at the nonprofit organization’s headquarters. The highly structured program allows free time, but academics come first.
Created last year, the Road to Excellence program — abbreviated as R2E — exists for smart students who lack the focus, parental support or money to get to college.
“When you look at this group of kids, what makes them unique, is that they are motivated but they don’t have the resources,” said John Daniel, executive director of Boys Hope Girls Hope Baton Rouge.
In the past year, 20 students have joined R2E. Daniel plans to increase that number to 50.
For nearly two decades, Boys Hope Girls Hope Baton Rouge had focused on a different model of helping youth. Starting in 1996 with eight students who lived full-time at the nonprofit’s houses and attended private Catholic schools, the program followed the model of an international organization founded by a priest in St. Louis in the 1970s. When the students graduated, they attended college and received a partial scholarship.
While the program was successful, the local Boys Hope Girls Hope model needed updating, Daniel said.
Instead of just focusing on residential students who live in a house near Catholic High School, last year Daniel instituted Road To Excellence as a non-residential option that allowed students to receive tutoring, academic counseling and help from mentors in an intensive program, but still live at home with their families.
The R2E model is attractive to potential donors because it has the capacity to affect more students, Daniel said, and more families are willing to join if their children don’t have to leave home.
After R2E’s pilot program last year, Boys Hope Girls Hope cut its costs by one-third by reducing residential staff and increased the number of students it helped.
Now the organization serves 31 students — 20 in the R2E program, five who live at the house and six in college.
Most students in R2E come from low- and middle-income families with parents who work long hours. Many would be the first in their families to earn a college degree, Daniel said, and usually the families don’t know all it takes to get to and succeed at a university.
“The resources needed to graduate from college, these kids are not bringing in general,” Daniel said. “They have the drive, but you need people to walk you through the process, to be tutors and mentors.”
To stay in Boys Hope Girls Hope, the students cede some freedom. They live by the program’s schedule, with studying and tutoring after school, a group dinner and a highly regulated after-school routine. And they regularly have their phones inspected.
On a Thursday afternoon last month, the doorbell constantly rang as Boys Hope Girls Hope scholars found their way to the organization’s Mid City house located between Baton Rouge High and Catholic High. The students found a place to study, either in a dedicated upstairs room, or downstairs around the long dinner table, before preparing their evening meal.
Ezra Grant, a 16-year-old Catholic High School student, studied in his room at the house. After starting the R2E program last year and becoming a better student, he convinced his parents to let him join the Boys Hope Girls Hope residential program.
“From almost my birth, they taught me I have to work hard in school to basically live the life I want to be able to live,” Grant said. “They would say, you want to live like this? You have to go to college.’”
And Diamond Bell? She’s focused on math homework in a quiet space upstairs.
In the past year, her grades have “skyrocketed,” and she said she better understands what it takes to get to college and excel. She hopes to study art or foreign languages.
When a high school principal contacted Patricia Bell about R2E, she thought it would be a good fit for her daughter.
“I think she has the potential,” Patricia Bell said while hanging out and playing chess with other scholars. “She has the capability, but she doesn’t always know how to channel that energy.”
Without R2E, Diamond said she probably would have “flunked out. I probably wouldn’t focus on school.”