On any school day, volunteer mentors can be found in the quiet, brightly decorated room tucked at the end of the hallway at Warner Elementary School, reading and tutoring and chatting with their assigned students.
Each Monday morning, Gov. Thomas R. Carper slips into the group to mentor Darrel Burton, a shy, soft-spoken 5th grader.
The pair often read together, work on math or word problems, or talk about Darrel’s family--four brothers and his mother.
“He seems to have blossomed a bit,” Gov. Carper said of Darrel after last week’s session. “His mom, teacher, and counselor report that his confidence is up.”
Mentoring is a cause that Delaware’s governor wants more people to take up. He signed on in 1993, his first year as governor, when two staff members brought the students they mentored to his office for lunch. He was so impressed with the students that he volunteered to work at the public elementary school that his two sons, now ages 7 and 9, attend.
“I see every day ... students who need a good role model, and teachers desperate for help,” he said.
The Democratic governor is so enthusiastic about mentoring that he has persuaded the state legislature--of which one house is GOP-controlled and the other Democratic--to pay $500,000 for fiscal 1998 for student mentoring programs, up from $350,000 in fiscal 1997. The overall education budget in fiscal 1997 was $609 million.
Volunteer mentoring is a cause that has attracted attention from state officials across the ideological spectrum. Govs. Pete Wilson of California and John Engler of Michigan, both Republicans, are also mentors and advocates for mentoring programs, which seek to increase student achievement and self esteem.
Gov. Carper is the National Governors’ Association’s most vocal mentoring proponent, and he has spoken to the group several times about his experiences, said Patty Sullivan, an NGA spokeswoman. “You don’t have a conversation with him for very long without him talking about this,” she said.
Help One Student to Succeed, or HOSTS, the national program in which Mr. Carper and most of the Delaware mentors participate, provides structured lesson plans and orientations for volunteers, most of whom work one hour each week.
Kathy Christie, a policy analyst with Education Commission of the States in Denver, said more states are looking at tutoring and mentoring programs to help at-risk students improve academic and social skills. The HOSTS program is popular because of its training and its structured approach. “That takes a lot of fear out of it for people,” Ms. Christie said.
Finding the Time
Gov. Carper has taken his crusade to Delaware businesses, asking them to allow employees to spend about an hour each week mentoring an at-risk child at a local school.
One nearby company, at his urging, has provided 140 employee-mentors to Warner Elementary, a school in downtown Wilmington with 930 students in grades 3-5. The school’s mentoring coordinator, Ann Wilson, said she barely has enough time to keep up with the training and has recently expanded the mentoring area from one room to two.
The governor’s goal is to have 11,000 volunteers--one for every 10 of the state’s 110,000 students--by 2000. More than 5,000 volunteers have signed up as of this year, including several members of the governor’s staff and state legislators.
Mentoring ties into other education-related themes of the Carper administration. For example, the governor wants businesses to get involved in his school technology initiative, and he plans to encourage mentors to take students to work with them one day a year, so the students can see how their education is relevant to work.
Ms. Christie cautioned that state officials and other executives might have a hard time keeping a mentoring commitment because of their demanding schedules. “You have to show up, because those kids count on you being there,” she said.
That hasn’t been a deterrent for Mr. Carper, who has missed only a few Monday-morning mentoring appointments in the past two years. He often tells business leaders, “When a governor says, ‘As busy as I am, I can find time to do it,’ then you can, too.”
“People find that challenge hard to duck,” he said, adding that so far, every business he has approached has signed on.
And mentors get a sense of fulfillment in their lives, he added. “Maybe in my next life I’ll come back as a teacher,” he said with a smile.