This summer, more than two dozen students from the city’s southeast signed up for Exit Lancaster. They’re eager to prove they are more than the disadvantaged neighborhoods they come from and ready to tackle the wider world.
The very name of the program can be seen as either insulting or inspiring. The idea of exiting the city is not meant “in a negative way,” said Mark Simms, principal at Edward Hand Middle School, which many Exit Lancaster students attend. “It’s a mental awareness of what’s going on out in the rest of the world.”
Exit Lancaster is an educational mentorship program based on five pillars: education, community service, arts, career aspirations and wellness. It helps students become well-rounded individuals who create a “winning life plan.”
“It showed me a different world that I wasn’t used to, or I didn’t think I could be a part of,” said Emily Rodriguez, a 21-year-old former Exit Lancaster student who now works with the program.
Rodriguez said Exit Lancaster’s co-founders, Ty Bair and Shayne Meadows, made her realize “just because I come from somewhere that’s not that nice … it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be great or do the things I wanted to do.”
Bair and Meadows, both teachers at Edward Hand, have instilled accountability, hope and determination in hundreds of students throughout the program’s 13 years.
“We wanted to give these kids a chance,” said Meadows.
Founded in 2001, the program started because Bair and Meadows wanted to form relationships that would help the students retain information learned during the school year and prepare them to go further in life.
In 2002, Exit Lancaster became a nonprofit organization, receiving funding from various grants and support from Hand’s school budget and the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs of Lancaster.
Simms said that thanks to the program’s high and unwavering expectations, he notices a difference in students who participate in the program.
“It’s an unwritten rule that you meet the pillars of the program every day,” Simms said.
Students know it won’t fly if they don’t meet expectations.
Ameer Ashford, an 14-year-old incoming McCaskey freshman who plans to study technology and business, said he appreciates having people in his life who call him out when he needs it.
How it operates
Just as in school, there’s literacy and math study daily. Students also practice public speaking and discuss how to reach goals. Afternoons are filled with trips to the YMCA for exercise and to sites where students perform community service. Exemplifying the Exit Lancaster name, there are trips to Rehoboth Beach, the Poconos and New York City, where they visit college campuses, museums and theaters.
Students say they feel real appreciation, not just for the program but for its leaders.
“You don’t see a lot of teachers giving up their summers for kids like us,” said Melissa Serrano, a rising freshman at McCaskey who plans to become a registered nurse.
“They care about our education, probably more than we do,” said Ameer, who describes Bair and Meadows as father figures who have been there for him outside of the program as well.
During the school year, Exit Lancaster students meet after class to do homework and participate in community service.
“Even though they’re pushing education, they do it in a way that makes you want to learn more,” said Ricky Pereira, 16, a rising senior at McCaskey who will be a dual enrollee at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. “It’s really easy to connect with them and have a good time learning.”
Small classes, the teachers’ ability to relate to the students, and the focus on really understanding what’s being taught contrast with the educational model driven by standardized testing.
“Everything’s for a test,” Ricky said about the goal in many other classrooms.
Teachers help students learn in the classroom and form relationships that go beyond school. They get to know each other during car rides, basketball practice and at the dinner table. Bair and Meadows’ children are often found with one of the kids from Exit Lancaster during field trips.
“I appreciate the fact that they see the people that are here as their family,” Ricky said.
Kids like us
Exit Lancaster offers the opportunity for kids from the southeast to explore places they might have never known or thought about.
“They decided to have a program to give kids a chance,” said Ashley Cruz, 14, and a member of the National Junior Honor Society, who plans on becoming a doctor.
If the program’s students have anything to say about it, Melissa’s reference to “kids like us’’ will soon be a thing of the past.
“People who are in Exit Lancaster are gonna be able to travel the world,”Ameer said.
• In session from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday, through July
• Provides trips for students to visit the YMCA for exercise, other local sites where they perform community service and educational sites such as college campuses, museums and theaters in New York City
• Receives support from grants, Edward Hand Middle School budget and the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs of Lancaster
• Led by co-founders, Ty Bair and Shayne Meadows