School & District Management

Time and Stability Seen as Key to Effective Mentoring

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 20, 2010 5 min read
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Conflicting studies on school-based mentoring programs for students tend to agree on at least one thing: The most critical element of effective mentoring—a stable relationship of at least a year—has also proved to be among the most difficult to align with school-based programs.

A new analysis of three recent “gold standard” evaluations of school mentoring programs has found the practice can improve a student’s attendance at and connection to school, but the sporadic and short-lived mentoring that is often associated with school-based programs, as opposed to community-based ones, could harm students.

David L. DuBois, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher and a co-author of the study published in the latest issue of the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report, has found previously that children in mentoring relationships for less than six months actually got worse in some respects compared with students who had not been mentored.

“You could actually see studies where the youth in the treated group end up showing more negative change to things like self-esteem, propensity to get involved in risky behavior” than the control group, Mr. DuBois said in a panel on the studies earlier this month. “So obviously, it’s a handle-with-care intervention.”

Mentoring programs have become a ubiquitous part of many school improvement efforts, a way to get communities involved in a school while providing students one-on-one help. The Alexandria, Va.-based National Mentoring Partnership, or MENTOR, estimates there are more than 4,700 mentoring programs in the United States, of which 28 percent are based in schools. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s found mentoring could improve students’ academic performance, self-esteem, and connection to adults, which spurred a huge increase in both bipartisan support and federal funding for school-based programs, topping out at more than $100 million in fiscal 2006. President Barack Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative includes mentoring as a recommended intervention.

Yet since the 2006 peak, several randomized controlled studies have muddied the water on the effectiveness of school-based mentoring, and the mixed results point in part to differences in the way programs have been implemented.

Contrasting Research

The Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates conducted the 2009 evaluation that led to the 2010 elimination of funding for grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Mentoring Program, the largest federal school mentoring program. On behalf of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Abt tracked 32 school-based mentoring programs serving 2,573 students. Researchers found the programs had spotty implementation: 14 percent of students never received a mentor, and those who did continued the relationship for less than six months on average. The study found programs did not improve students’ academic performance, interpersonal relationships, or risk of delinquency, though they did reduce truancy for students 12 and younger.

The report contrasted with two other randomized trials. The first, conducted by the Philadelphia-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the nation’s largest mentoring group, tracked 1,139 students in 71 school programs nationwide. The study used only programs with at least three years of experience and close ties to the school, and it found that after a year of mentoring, teachers reported students performed better academically, were more likely to turn in homework, and had fewer disciplinary problems than unmentored students. They also accumulated fewer unexcused absences.

Finally, the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Study of Mentoring in the Learning Environment, or SMILE, tracked 525 students in 19 local schools served by the San Antonio Communities in Schools mentoring program. It found no academic gains, and declines for boys with mentors focused on academic discussions as opposed to nonacademic, personal discussions. However, elementary school boys showed higher levels of connectedness with school and empathy, and high school girls improved in connection, peer support, and self-esteem, in comparison with control group students.

Making More Time

Despite the differences among programs, the Social Policy Report meta-analysis found school mentoring programs improved students’ sense of academic efficacy, the level of peer support they had, and relationships with adults outside the family, while reducing truancy and school misconduct, provided the students remained in the program for a year. Still, the researchers noted that the results suggested those improvements could be lost if the students’ mentoring did not continue.

For example, while all three had average mentoring lengths of less than six months, 41 percent of students in the Big Brothers Big Sisters study continued to meet with their mentor, both in school and out, into a second year.

Most school-based programs link students to mentors for a semester or an academic year and require them to meet only during campus activities. While that can make it easier to recruit adult volunteers, it limits the amount of time mentors and students have to build a relationship, said Marc Wheeler, an adjunct research associate at Portland State University and the lead researcher of the Social Policy Report study.

Some of the studied programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, have created what Mr. Wheeler called “school-plus” mentoring programs, in which schools match students and mentors for formal activities on campus, but also support them in the community and outside the regular school day and year.

That’s what Thurgood Marshall Academy in the District of Columbia, has done, said Principal Jessica Sher. The high school partners with law firms to provide more than 260 mentors, and it credits its academic increases in part to the mentoring program.

Seventy percent of 10th grade students are paired with a mentor for formal meetings one Saturday each month, involving both independent activities and structured ones, such as college visits.

Ms. Sher said students and mentors often meet for lunch during the day and for homework help after school.

“The more positive adults that are engaged and interested and willing to be involved with our students,” Ms. Sher said,” the more successful [the students] will be.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Time and Stability Seen as Key Ingredients for School-Based Mentoring

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