Helping Baltimore students realize their potential with over 800 volunteers and more than 175 community partners
Sarah Hemminger is the CEO and co-founder of Thread. Founded in 2004, Thread connects a family of volunteer and community collaborators with high school students who need support outside of the classroom. An overwhelming majority (92%) of 5-year Thread students have graduated high school, with nearly as many accepted into college and 80% graduating from a 4- or 2-year degree or certificate program. By linking members of Baltimore’s community, compelling academic success, and fostering social change, Thread seeks to curtail the cycle of poverty, crime, and lack of education for the benefit of all students.
What role does technology play in Thread’s social change efforts?
SARAH HEMMINGER: We’ve leveraged technology to help form deep relationships. We were really challenged when we started to think about what scale would look like for Thread. We set our very ambitious goal of reaching 5%—remember, the most academically underperforming 5% of every freshman class across the school district—so that would mean engaging 3,000 students at scale here in Baltimore. In order to do so we would have to weave together relationships with 7,000 volunteers.
When you think about that, that’s a 10,000 person community. That’s a lot to manage. A for-profit CEO pointed it out to us. He was like, “You’ll never scale.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you don’t have what I have,” and he pulled out a dashboard on his cellphone. It was in units of dollars, and he could look at it in real time. He was like, “Until you can give me a single unit that you measure in real time, I’m not going to believe that you can scale.”
So, I actually spent six months looking at it. Luckily, we collect tons of data. We’re founded by a bunch of scientists. I looked at the data, and the preliminary data pointed to something we believed to be profound: We believe we can predict if a student is going to graduate from high school, go on to college, graduate from college, and truly break the cycle of poverty long-term.
A single metric that can be looked at in real time that predicts that is touch point. It’s: How many interactions is the student having with a volunteer? We know that if there are consistent touch points between students and volunteers, the student is going to be better than okay. When you think about it, you step back and say, “Oh that makes a lot of sense.” It’s hard to have a healthy relationship if you’re not in contact with someone. We know that what every young person needs to become a happy, healthy adult is just to have a consistent, caring adult in their life.
So, we built a tech platform that allows us to do exactly what that for-profit CEO said we needed. On their phones, our volunteers can now log the touch points they’re having with the students. It’s kind of like Fitbit for relationships. You can also see the touch points the other five volunteers have had, and looking at those really gives you a sense of the health of the relationship. We know the health of the relationship is predictive of the future success of our students, so that’s how we’ve leveraged technology to really bring people together in person versus keep them separated and apart and online.
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