Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) Provides Strengths-Based, Career-Focused RAMP Mentoring Program

IELThe Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) is a national nonprofit organization that initiates, operates, and supports improvement and innovation initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels. IEL’s mission is to equip leaders to work together across boundaries to build effective systems that prepare children and youth for postsecondary education, careers, and citizenship. For over 50 years, IEL has led innovation efforts that bring together leaders across the various sectors of education, workforce development, and child- and youth-serving systems. IEL currently operates programs and/or works with partners in every state.

IEL provides youth mentoring programming through the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP), which is housed at IEL’s Center for Workforce Development (CWD). Since 1991, CWD has helped public and private sector leaders promote career readiness and successful transitions to adulthood for all youth, with a special focus on youth with disabilities and other disconnected youth, by increasing the capacity of and connections among all stakeholders in the workforce development system.

Mentoring Model

RAMPRAMP is a high-tech, career-focused mentoring program for youth with disabilities currently involved in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. RAMP’s focus on careers is designed to reduce offense rates, increase secondary school completion, and increase social and work readiness skills. Based in part on the High School/High Tech model, which helps high school-age youth with disabilities transition to adulthood, RAMP engages youth in exploring their career interests, with an emphasis on high-tech, high-growth careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The RAMPTM model uses a combination of group, peer, and one-on-one mentoring to promote the successful transition of RAMP youth to employment, continued learning opportunities, and independent living.

RAMP was established with 14 sites in 2009 as an OJJDP National Mentoring Grantee. RAMP has continued over 8 years through multi-state, enhancement, and Second Chance Act grants to serve more than 2,500 youth across 20 sites. RAMP sites recruit youth with disabilities ages 12 – 17, with a special emphasis on those already experiencing truancy, discipline issues, arrest, incarceration, and other risk factors. RAMP uses a strengths-based career focus to combat the lower rates of high school graduation, postsecondary school enrollment, and employment for youth with disabilities. Youth and mentors engage in weekly career-focused group mentoring sessions which include peer-supported goal setting and exploration of careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), delivered in four phases: Self-Exploration and Community Mapping; Career Exploration; Career Planning & Management; and Transition (to additional program, continuing education, or work). There is time allotted in each phase for at least one additional structured mentor-mentee activity (educational or recreational) to promote relationship-building and meet the often unmet need for recreation among youth with disabilities.

Additionally, each youth meets regularly one-on-one with their adult mentor to develop and implement an Individualized Mentoring Plan (IMP). Youths’ families, teachers, and support network are engaged in career fairs, college visits, and extended learning activities. While in RAMP, youth have the opportunity to assess and explore their own career interests; develop a plan and set goals for their transition; create a resource map of their community’s high-tech industries; gain workplace soft skills; build resume-writing and interviewing skills; interact with employers and experience a variety of work settings; give and receive peer support; take advantage of group and personal leadership opportunities; design and build a high-tech-related team project, and most importantly…have fun!

During the career-focused meetings, youth set weekly goals to help achieve the long term goals set on their IMP. Peers support each other in setting and keeping weekly career preparation goals. Each week, the group reviews the goals and checks on each other’s progress. Youth are often as proud (if not prouder!) of the goals achieved by their peers and remind each other throughout the week to keep to their goals. (At one site, “RAMP” was a code word youth used during class to remind each other to pay attention and not get expelled). Weekly goals may include researching the necessary education for a given career, getting to class on time, or researching the bus route to a job. The one-on-one mentor-mentee matches are a critical component of RAMP youth’s success, as they build a personal bond through exploring common interests and working together to identify and achieve youth’s goals. Mentors and mentees meet regularly to work on the IMP.

Strengths-Based and Career-Focused Approaches

IELOne unique component of RAMP is its career-focus and its strengths-based developmental approach. Much of the program and adult interaction for court-involved youth, especially those with disabilities, is focused on what the youth have done wrong or need to get better at doing (detention, discipline, rehabilitation, therapy). RAMP focuses on youth’s strengths, interests, and futures. This is not only engaging to youth, who are dreaming about their future homes and jobs and how to get there, but also exciting for their families and teachers. Families often share with RAMP coordinators that this is the first time they have seen their youth engaged in an extracurricular activity and thinking about a job or life beyond high school. Teachers share that engaging with youth through RAMP has changed their role from a nagging reminder to a job coach and supporter. Furthermore, career-focused conversations are generally easy for mentors (who are often unsure about what to say or do with teen mentees) to talk about, relate to, and build a relationship on.

RAMP also engages schools in this strengths-based, career-focused approach. Mentees’ IMP goals are shared with school administrators who often referred youth in the first place and teachers who may not have known the youth had an interest in improving their class. As a result, RAMP sites are able to work with schools to align and/or co-plan curriculums and mentoring goals. RAMP is often used as career exploration class in the schools they partner with. RAMP covers the transition and career preparation activities required by various school districts and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). RAMP also fits into individualized/customized education plans and is part of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students at some schools.

Mentors and Staff

IELRAMP mentors are caring adults from the community who are interested in (and excited about!) working with youth. In addition to meeting individually and in groups with their mentees, RAMP mentors take an active lead in planning and leading the career-focused meetings, as well as joining or even hosting career exploration events. RAMP sites recruit mentors from new and existing partners and community connections, including juvenile justice partners, local high-tech and other industries, schools, universities, churches, and from within their own organizations. Mentors may work with up to 4 youth but must commit to connecting with each youth individually each week and attending several RAMP events each quarter. RAMP mentors are usually matched with youth based on the youth’s career interest, a shared hobby or similar personalities. Mentors and youth complete interest surveys and often meet initially at a speed-matching event or other group relationship-building activity. All mentors must pass federal and state background checks, complete an in-person interview and orientation, pass the RAMP Screening Protocol, and attend on-going training and peer-to-peer support sessions.

IEL acts as a national intermediary and technical assistance center for RAMP sites, providing the program model, selecting community sites, leading the orientation, monthly calls, and topical webinars, convening the annual meeting, conducting site visits, and developing an extensive site handbook with guidelines, templates, and resource materials for all aspects of the program. Community-based organizations implementing the program at each site provide a full-time mentoring coordinator; recruit, screen, and train mentors; enroll, match, and engage mentees; convene weekly career-focused group meetings, one-on-one mentoring, and structured mentor-mentee activities; support youth in developing IMPs and weekly goals; engage families, employers, community partners, schools, and employers in program activities; participate in monthly calls, topical webinars, and site visits; and collect and report data and success stories.

Assessment and Outcomes

IELIn December 2016, RAMP completed its seventh year in a total of 21 sites across the country. During the prior 6 years, over 2,000 youth, of all races and backgrounds from rural, urban, and suburban communities enrolled in the RAMP program with outcomes exceeding program participation, academic, and juvenile justice performance goals. Among participating youth:

  • 96% stayed in school,
  • 96% had no offenses,
  • 94% completed the program,
  • 75% improved school attendance, and
  • 80% increased their social competence and sense of social support.

To date, RAMP considers the following as its greatest achievements:

  • Youth have a new understanding of their own interests and strengths and how those connect to a possible career pathway. As one youth put it, “Through RAMP, I learned that no matter what kind of kid you are and what you like to do, there could be a good job for you.”

  • Youth and families have a clear understanding of the steps youth need to take to get a job, get into college, and move their lives forward after high school. As another youth put it, “RAMP is the real deal. It tells us what we need to know to get a job and helps us get into college.”

  • Youth, families, and teachers have a new vision of youth and their future potential. As one parent told us, “My other kids always had clubs and friends. RAMP is the first time my daughter has had her own activity to go to and that I have been able to picture her on her own some day.”

  • Employers and the community see RAMP youth as valuable resources. As one employer said after participating in mock interviews, “I would have hired 5 of these youth today if I could have. I am very impressed!”

Connections to Evidence-Based Practice

RAMP is founded on the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth’s research-based and federally recognized Guideposts for Success. The Guideposts for Success framework identifies the five research-based needs of youth for successful transition to adulthood:

  1. School-Based Preparatory Experiences,
  2. Career Preparation and Work-Based Learning,
  3. Youth Development and Leadership,
  4. Connecting Activities, and
  5. Family Involvement and Supports.

Although the main focus of RAMP falls within the Career Preparation and Work-Based Learning and Youth Development and Leadership areas, IEL’s IMP process, mentor training curricula, match support protocols, and family engagement efforts allow the organization to address all of the Guideposts for Success categories.

RAMP sites also use strategies and resources from the research-based Paving the Way to Work: A Guide to Career-Focused Mentoring for Youth with Disabilities. This guide includes information on the value of mentoring and the youth development and disability contexts, including career preparation in mentoring, program operation, and mentor program evaluation. The RAMP mentoring model uses several evidence-based practices identified by Rhodes and DuBois (2008) as critical to establishing mentoring relationships that promote positive changes in youth. Specifically, RAMP ensures youth form strong, enduring, and developmentally enriching connections with mentors by

  1. Maximizing the frequency and duration of mentee-mentor interactions;
  2. Providing a balance of structured and supportive interactions tailored to the young person’s interests and goals;
  3. Ensuring mentors model effective communication skills, positive social interactions, and critical thinking; and
  4. Helping youth explore and develop a positive sense of identity and pursue personal goals for the future including postsecondary education and careers.

Next Steps 

RAMP is always looking for new ways to strengthen mentee-mentor relationships, engage families, and deepen partnerships with schools, employers, and juvenile justice agencies. IEL works with sites during site visits and through “enhancement working groups” to identify innovative practices and share them with other sites and the field.

IEL has participated in a Technical Assistance assessment with OJJDP’s National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) to identify areas for growth and innovation, as well as opportunities to share resources with others. Additionally, information from the NMRC on recruiting and training mentors and supporting the mentor/mentee relationship have been shared with local RAMP sites.

Additional Resources:

Related Resources


Rhodes, J. E. & DuBois, D. L. (2008). Mentoring relationships and programs for youth. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (4), 254-258.

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