Fifteen years ago, educators at Oregon Junior/Senior High School in northern Illinois realized something needed to change: Too many of their 9th graders were floundering academically and socially.
The class of 130 freshmen had a collective 273 Fs in their classes. And the stakes were high—grades and attendance during students’ freshman year are critical indicators of on-time graduation. Studies have found that when freshmen are disengaged, missing school, and failing classes, they’re more likely to drop out or not graduate in four years.
Oregon’s principal at the time enlisted Kimberly Radostits, a Spanish teacher at the school, to help find a solution. She put together a small group of educators to pilot an after-school program where struggling freshmen students could receive support, guidance, and connection.
In just a couple years, the school started to see indicators that the program—named Hawks Take Flight, after the school’s mascot—was working. The school’s on-time graduation rate was increasing, and student attendance had improved.
“Many of those students didn’t really need homework help,” said Radostits, who is now the Illinois Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the national award. “What they needed was just an adult who believed in them.”
That’s the power of mentoring. Research shows that when students have an adult in their school building who they can trust, they have better attendance, better grades, higher test scores, a sense of belonging and connectedness at school, and belief in themselves as learners.
Each year, Oregon identifies the 15 percent of the freshmen class that is most at-risk for not graduating, according to early indicators from middle school. For example, educators will look at absences, missing work, and even the number of visits to the nurse’s office to see if students are going to school but missing copious amounts of class time.
Then, educators will meet with the students’ parents to explain the program and its benefits. The decision to be a part of the program is ultimately left up to students and their parents, but most participate.
“That is why it’s successful: No one is forced to be in it,” said Heidi Deininger, who is in her fifth year as Oregon’s principal.
By 2019-20, the number of failing grades in the freshmen class had dropped to 16. When the program was scaled back in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years due to the pandemic, it didn’t yield the same results, Deininger said, adding that it’s back to normal this year: “It works best when it’s in its truest form.”
Students get both academic and social-emotional support
This year, seven educators—teachers, school counselors, and a paraprofessional—meet with 17 students every Wednesday after school. They talk as a group as well as one-on-one (each adult has about two students as mentees). Mentees are encouraged to contact their mentors outside of the designated program time, too, and Radostits said students will confide in their mentors about personal problems, as well as academic ones.
Caelyn Langley, 17, went through Hawks Take Flight as a freshman. She had struggled in middle school, and she didn’t expect to do well in high school—but the educators in the program pushed her to keep on top of her assignments and put effort into her work. She ended up doing well in her classes and is now a senior, with plans to pursue a degree in psychology at Loyola University Chicago in the fall.
Having a supportive relationship with a teacher—in her case, Radostits—was key, Caelyn said. She has stayed connected with Radostits throughout her time at Oregon, sometimes stopping by her classroom for an hour after school, just to chat.
“Someone who means something to you is telling you that you can do it and is pushing you to do your best,” Caelyn said. “Mrs. Rad was the first teacher I’ve had a relationship like that with. She really gave me advice and helped me figure stuff out.”
Many of those students didn’t really need homework help. What they needed was just an adult who believed in them.
At one point during her freshman year, Caelyn had a loss in her family. “Mrs. Rad called me and really comforted me,” she said. “It was one of the best things I’ve had happen to me, teacher-wise.”
Each week, the mentors with Hawks Take Flight will help students set an academic goal and a social-emotional goal, which could be something like having a conversation with the cheerleading coach about tryouts or sitting with a different group of people during lunch if they’re having trouble with their friend group.
The mentors will also help break down big assignments into manageable chunks, provide feedback on schoolwork, and celebrate any successes. Each week, students also get to enter a raffle, with small prizes—like a donut or a day pass to a local gym—that are paid for by community donations and by the educators, who do this work on a volunteer basis.
“I really try to accentuate the positives because I don’t think they always see that in themselves,” Radostits said.
Whenever she hears something good the students did, she’ll leave her mentees a sticky note of praise that they can pick up at the school office. The notes may say something like, “I heard you got an A on your Algebra 1 quiz—I’m so proud of you!” or, “I heard you helped a peer through a sticky situation in the cafeteria, thank you for doing that.”
“We spend the year just building up their confidence, and we’ve found that when you do that for a student, it motivates them to work harder in the future,” Radostits said.
Added Deininger: “For some of them, it’s the first time in their school career they feel like, with a teacher, they’re known, they’re seen, and they’re valued.”
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as How One School’s Mentorship Program Paid Off Big