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Budget Crunch Kills Denver's Mentoring Program

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High school seniors throughout Denver put on caps and gowns last week and walked across stages to pick up their diplomas. But the ceremonies marked the end of a program that helped many of them get there.

Five years ago, Evie G. Dennis, who was then the superintendent of the Denver schools, decided to do something to keep more of the district's students in school. She resolved to take every 9th-grade class in the district, target those students most in need, and match them with adult mentors throughout their time in high school.

In its first year, the "Class of 1995" mentoring program had paired nearly 1,000 students from Denver's 10 high schools with as many volunteers from businesses in the community. The companies in turn agreed to each sponsor a school and chip in $4,800 to help pay for mentor training, mailings, office supplies, and achievement incentives for students in the school. The 63,000-student school system, meanwhile, paid for three full-time and four part-time mentor-student "liaisons"--allowing one part-time worker for each school.

Although no formal studies were conducted to gauge the program's influence on academic progress, many of the students who participated and stayed with a mentor through their senior year have credited the relationship with their success.

"The partners that stuck it out felt extremely close to each other," said Joseph Sandoval, the principal of the predominantly Hispanic North High School. ~~"And a lot of those kids academically did exceptionally well."

But while the program seemed to have a solid foundation, the weakness that allowed it to eventually crumble is the same one that allowed participation to dwindle from 850 partners the first year to just 150 this year: lack of money.

Dollar Dependent

"The reason there will be no class of 1999 program is not because the mentors don't want to do it or the students aren't interested," said Geri Bigum, the only remaining liaison, "but because we have an incredible shortfall in our budget."

The district has a $333.7 million budget for the 1995-96 school year, leaving it $8.7 million short of what it needs to pay for all of its programs.

Last year, the district cut funds for the liaisons, leaving only Ms. Bigum to coordinate the program for the entire city.

Irv Moskowitz, who became the Denver superintendent after Ms. Dennis left last year, has not gotten involved in the mentoring program, according to a spokeswoman in the superintendent's office.

Those involved in the project agree that regardless of the program's strengths--a supportive community, energetic volunteers, and determined students--it cannot operate without the district coordinators. They are responsible for such tasks as matching the partners, training the mentors, keeping in touch with both parties, and arranging activities to encourage the entire class to persevere.

Even when the district was employing all seven liaisons, their contracts were only for the summer, Ms. Bigum said. When the coordinators were not communicating with the mentors during summer breaks, the program consistently lost about 30 pairs in each school, she said.

"We had people who were committed to it," said Pat Cortez, the vice president of urban banking for Norwest Bank, which sponsored the 1,700-student North High School. "But you also need someone in the school system to pull it all together."

If a program does not constitute direct instruction, its foundations are always shaky, Mr. Sandoval said. "It's a sad case."

Another victim of the district's cuts might be Denver Kids, a mentoring program for K-12 students that started in 1946, Ms. Bigum said.

If funds could be spared, she said, she would advocate sustaining a program at least for 9th-grade students, who are not yet "too cool" to work with a mentor.

"My friends call me a Pollyanna," she said. "But I think that after they finish cleaning house, there will be a will and a way to get these programs back to the kids."

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