Special Report
Student Well-Being

How One School’s Mentorship Program Paid Off Big in Academic Gains

By Madeline Will — February 21, 2023 4 min read
Phil Yordy, left, works with freshman Derek Shallow, 15, right, during the Hawks Take Flight mentorship program after school at Oregon High School in Oregon, Ill., on Feb. 15, 2023. Yordy teaches world history, civics, and freshman seminar and volunteers as a program mentor.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Kimberly Radostits works with students in the Hawks Take Flight program at Oregon High School in Oregon, Ill., on Feb. 8, 2023.

“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


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Is There a Secret to Faster Learning? Here’s What the Latest Research Says
Some students seem to learn quicker than others. But new research reveals that’s largely a myth.
Paulo Carvalho
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Teen Girls Are Being Victimized by AI-Generated Nude Images
AI-generated deepfake nude images of teens were circulated at a schools in New Jersey and Washington.
5 min read
Dorota Mani sits for an interview in her office in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 8, 2023. Mani is the parent of a 14-year-old New Jersey student victimized by an AI-generated deepfake image.
Dorota Mani sits for an interview in her office in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 8, 2023. Mani is the parent of a 14-year-old New Jersey student victimized by an AI-generated deepfake image.
Peter K. Afriyie/AP
Student Well-Being How Districts Can Keep After-School and Summer Learning Alive After ESSER Dries Up
Roughly 8 in 10 school districts spent some of their federal COVID relief funds on after-school or summer learning.
4 min read
Multi-ethnic preschool boys playing with blocks.
E+ / Getty
Student Well-Being Kids Are Getting Priced Out of Youth Sports. How Schools Can Help
The rising costs of participating in organized youth sports is making these activities unaffordable for many families.
3 min read
Graham Bacigalupi, of Team Louisiana, watches from the dugout during the DYB, formerly Dixie Youth Baseball, Little League tournament in Ruston, La., on Aug. 8, 2023.
Graham Bacigalupi, of Team Louisiana, watches from the dugout during a Little League tournament in Ruston, La., on Aug. 8, 2023.
Gerald Herbert/AP