Getting into college requires a great deal of hard work, determination, resources and lots of support. But for students who grow up in Baltimore’s low-income neighborhoods and attend under-resourced and poorly performing high schools, being accepted into a college may seem like a pipe dream.

A Baltimore-based nonprofit, Building STEPS (Science, Technology and Education Partnerships) is making the dream of a college education a reality for hundreds of academically inclined Baltimore city high school students. On May 8, Building STEPS will celebrate the success of its more than 150 high school students at its “I’m In! A College Acceptance Celebration” at the Hilton Baltimore.

Beyond the highlight of each senior announcing where they will be going in the fall, the day will include professional development workshops, a guest speaker and a luncheon. In preparation for summer internships, juniors will learn about workplace attire and professional etiquette.

Debra Hettleman

Debra Hettleman, executive director of Building STEPS: “Our graduates are Baltimore’s future.”
(Courtesy of Building STEPS)

Debra Hettleman, executive director of Building STEPS, says the students served by the program — almost all of whom are the first in their families to attend college — face many obstacles that can interfere with applying, being accepted, paying for and finding success in higher education.

“Building STEPS is propelling hundreds of our city’s students to college and career success,” says Hettleman, a Chizuk Amuno congregant and Owings Mills resident. “Our graduates are Baltimore’s future.”

A multi-year program that begins in a student’s junior year of high school, Building STEPS was the brainchild of Matthew Weinberg, CEO of the Weinberg Group, a bio-tech, medical and pharmaceutical consulting firm based in Washington D.C. Weinberg founded the nonprofit in 1995 to address the lack of diversity he observed in STEM fields. In 2000, he relocated the program to Baltimore. Under the leadership of Hettleman — who rebooted the organization from her living room before moving its headquarters to the campus of Towson University in 2006 – Building STEPS has grown exponentially.

Building STEPS offers students at Baltimore’s more challenged public high schools opportunities to gain exposure to STEM careers and such college preparatory services as SAT tutoring, completing college and financial aid applications and help writing application essays. The students must must have at least a 3.0 grade point average and some interest in STEM subjects.

Although Building STEPS originally served students in Baltimore City and County, the program — which is offered at no charge to schools or students — now focuses exclusively on students at city schools (while still supporting graduates of Woodlawn, Milford Mill, Randallstown and Chesapeake high schools).

During the summers, students are placed in paid internships with local STEM-oriented companies. They are exposed to careers possibilities in the STEM field through organized site visits to employers such as Northrop Grumman, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Project BioEYES, Code in the Schools and SciTech Services.

Building STEPS’ participants take part in community service activities and receive coaching on such skills as time management and decision making, which the program calls “persistence work.”

Support does not end once Building STEPS’ students are accepted into colleges. The program provides assistance to students post-acceptance to ensure success throughout their college careers.

Christina Mathew

Christina Mathew, a graduate of Milford Mill High School, is among the area students who have benefited from the services of Building STEPS. (Courtesy of Building STEPS)

More than 80 percent of Building STEPS’ participants earn college degrees, as compared to 9 percent of city students who do not participate in the program. So far this year, almost all of the Building STEPS’ seniors have been accepted to a four-year college.

When the program began, the nonprofit served 16 students; now, it serves more than 100 new students each year across Baltimore.

Zalandria Spann, a Building STEPS alumna who is an Incentive Awards Scholar and senior majoring in accounting and finance at the University of Maryland, College Park, credits the program with helping her gain admission to college.

Spann, who attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, says she “had no clue what FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid form] was, how to write my essay correctly — I didn’t even know what I wanted to major in. But Building STEPS would take us to different colleges and career panels. Not only did they give me the inspiration, but they also gave me the tools that I needed to go ahead and apply.”

Deborah T. Long, executive director of the Alvin and Fanny B. Thalheimer Foundation, has been volunteering with Building STEPS for a decade. In her role as lead writing advisor, Long facilitates a series of essay workshops and meets one on one with the program’s high school seniors, helping them articulate a compelling, well written college essay.

Having a strong essay and application, says Hettleman, can be a “tipping point [to being accepted] to a better school.”

Long says she chooses to donate her time to Building STEPS over other educational organizations because of Hettleman and her staff’s dedication and compassion.

“Building STEPS helps students get tutors, get help, emergency family travel — they support their students through their college years,” says Long. “It’s not just your college acceptance. That is not the end-game with Debra. Whatever it is from me that she needs, I will say yes.”

On May 15, Building STEPS will hold its 2018 Achievement Reception, a ticketed fundraiser for donors, supporters and alumni, at The Cove at Citron, at Quarry Lake in Pikesville. For information about Building STEPS or for tickets to the Achievement Reception, visit

Jolene Carr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.