By Valerie Strauss August 26

Who would pay former gang members to help them go to college? A program in Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston, is doing just that — and for some of its students, it seems to be working.

The nonprofit organization College Bound Dorchester — which works to help at-risk prepare for and successfully attend college — started Boston Uncornered, a program to help former gang members become productive members of society. The brainchild of College Bound Dorchester chief executive Mark Culliton is designed not only to help the individuals but also to use education as a means to help those same people transform their own neighborhoods.

“I’ve been working on this for 10 years,” Culliton said, “trying to figure out what really makes a bad neighborhood. I came to the conclusion that a lot of communities have what I think is a small group of highly disruptive young people, with the vast majority of folks who just want to live their lives. So we are working on how to get those who are disruptive to engage and use their power in the community to help transform it positively.”

Culliton is talking about young people like 31-year-old Antonio Franklin, who said he grew up in a Dorchester home where the adults were addicted to drugs and had a hard time helping him. By fifth grade, he was involved with gangs and sold drugs, and dropped out of school in 11th grade, as he described, to go “gang banging.”

At age 20 he was shot, and a short time after that assaulted a police officer, for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.  But he earned something else too: With the realization that his life was going nowhere, he studied for and got a GED and was recently released from prison. He had no idea what to do. An old friend suggested that he check out the Boston Uncornered initiative.

“At first I was kind of skeptical,” he said. “Everybody says they want to help us and the result is usually nothing. But I feel with this program they really care.”

The program offers former gang members, whom they call “Core Influencers,” social, emotional and education support to give them the best chance of success outside the criminal justice system, as well as financial and academic support for those who decide to enroll in community college. Enrollees can receive $400 a week for 33 to 35 hours of school, tutoring and work-based learning, or $20,000 a year — enough to help but not to force them to give up other assistance they may be getting.

Without the money or the other support, Franklin said, he couldn’t think of going to school. In September, he will start studying at Bunker Hill Community College, probably psychology, with drama “on the side,” he said.

“I am committed to growth and development,” he said. “I want my life to be 20 times better than when I left it, and now I have to live not just for myself but for my child on the way. My focus is living a life where my child will want to progress better than me.”

Culliton, who attended the University of Michigan, spent three years in the Peace Corps in Thailand, and earned an MBA at Yale Business School, started the program as a pilot a year and a half ago when he took seven former gang members just out of prison and helped them enroll in community college.

Of that seven, he said, two got arrested again, one had to leave town when his gang put out a hit on him and one “totally played us and took the money and unfortunately got shot and killed last fall.” But three of them “who nobody expected to make it” actually stayed in school.

Now there are about 50 students in Boston Uncornered, with a range in age from 18 to 34. Most of them have been in jail. The program’s counselors try to recruit former gang members who seem to be at an important inflection point in their lives, Culliton said, such as just getting out of jail, having a child, or seeing a family member shot and killed. The goal is to engage up to 25 percent of the gang-involved youths in Boston, which College Bound says would be about 900, and enroll 250 students in college over the next three years.

“One of the valuable assets Boston Uncornered has is that it is based on three or four years of working with this population, making a ton of mistakes but learning how this population of gang-involved youth operate, the family connections, et cetera,” he said. “Our college readiness advisers understand the dynamics that will make it more or less likely to make a Core Influencer engage and then progress.”

Success will be determined with help from researchers at MIT’s J-PAL and researchers from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University to evaluate the program with the goal of making it a national model, he said.

Many of those who enter the program do not have a GED as Franklin did, and while community college in Boston is free, students must have graduated from high school or have a high school equivalency credential. The program helps them pass the HiSET, a high school equivalency test, then offers college prep classes and a stipend to defray transportation and living expenses.

“These are incredible individuals who have shown the power to lead and influence in a destructive way, and given the opportunity, can use their power and influence in a positive way in their community,” Culliton said. “A lot of our success is walking towards these young men and women we serve and not walking away from them and sticking with them and saying we believe they can do anything.”

The program now is funded almost exclusively with private money, but he hopes the model will ultimately attract public policymakers who see its value, scale it  and financially support it. It is in the public interest, he said, to help these young people “complete college, pay taxes and become part of society,” rather than spend even more money to keep them incarcerated. He said the program has raised nearly $5 million but needs a projected total of $18 million over three years to help people such as Matt Jackson.

Jackson, 33, was born in Boston, where he lived in a housing project and dropped out of school in 12th grade. At age 17, Jackson said, he was caught by police selling drugs with a gun, and he spent 5 ½ years in prison. While inside, he, like Franklin, earned a GED, but went back to selling drugs after he was released because he didn’t know what else to do, he said.

Jackson is the father of a 5-year-old daughter whose mother was murdered on Nov. 1, 2014, in the neighborhood where they had grown up, a place where gang members still rule the streets, he said. Rival gang members began shooting at each other when she was visiting, and one of the bullets killed her.

“After that, I just knew that selling drugs was out the window,” he said. “I can’t go to jail. I didn’t want to risk. It. I had to be out here for my daughter,” he said. He got two-part time jobs, one in the shipping department at an Old Navy and the other as a dietary aide at a nursing home. “The jobs were good but it wasn’t enough to support me and her,” he said.

He then got a better job that paid a little more but it still wasn’t enough. He ran into someone he had known in prison who was involved with College Bound and learned that he knew some of the college readiness advisers working at the program.

“I told them I can’t go to school and walk away from these jobs because I need money,” he said. “They said they offered a stipend but they have to make sure you are serious and really want to do it.”

He said after thinking about it for a few days, he went to meet a program adviser and saw other former prison mates who were involved with the program. “I knew there was something there because those guys wouldn’t waste their time with it. So I started believing in the program, and kept showing up. I took college prep classes and in January [2017] enrolled in Bunker Hill,” where he is working on an associate degree in sciences and human services. In his first semester, he earned all Bs, and took summer classes as well.

Jackson gets an $800 stipend from the program every two weeks, he said. He is now living with the young daughter of his murdered girlfriend as well her older daughter. The three are live together, with their grandmother helping out. “We are still a family, holding it together,” he said.

“I am going to go into human services,” he said. “Most likely if I can’t get into juvenile justice or social work or the criminal justice system, I would like to start a nonprofit or get involved in a nonprofit. Through my whole younger life, basically I was involved in gangs, selling drugs. . . . I want to turn anyone I can away from that, especially young guys in my neighborhood who looked up to me then and look up to me now.

“I want them to see it is a waste of time and a waste of life and destroys families. That’s not for us at the end of the day,” he said. “Our neighborhoods might be bad or messed up, but it is up to us change it.”