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Special Report
Student Well-Being

To Fill a ‘Mentoring Gap,’ Schools Get Creative

By Evie Blad — October 17, 2017 8 min read
Students at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C., play a game during a field day event last month, when new freshmen met their junior and senior mentors who’ll help them navigate the complexities of their first year in high school.
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On the sunny turf of Greene Central High School’s football field one recent morning, new 9th graders gathered to play games and to meet the mentors who will help guide them through their transition to high school.

The mentors don’t fit the stereotype of middle-aged adults who eat lunch with students in the school cafeteria once a week. They’re students, just a few years older, who will receive class credit to guide their younger peers through the ups and downs of the first year of high school. The upperclassmen mentors will help with loftier endeavors like setting goals, or the more fraught, day-to-day experiences of being in high school like resolving conflicts or using social media responsibly.

The program, called Peer Group Connection, has given students a sense of responsibility for and accountability to each other, Assistant Principal Uvonda Willis said. For Greene Central, located in the small eastern North Carolina town of Snow Hill, it’s a better fit than adult mentoring.

“We tell people, this transforms your entire school culture,” Willis said. “These peer leaders, they become a part of these children’s lives. These kids look to them to be what they don’t have in their own lives.”

The rural, 900-student school wanted to help students develop social-emotional skills, like problem solving, so it turned to peer mentoring. Willis remembers a moment when she saw those skills in action. When a 9th-grade student was being disruptive in class, his teacher turned to his peer mentor, a senior, to help him talk through his frustrations and calm down.

As schools adopt mentoring programs to support and encourage their students, many are also breaking the traditional model of recruiting adult volunteers to regularly meet with students. They’re drawn to mentoring by research that shows a connection between consistent, positive relatioships and improved school engagement and attendance.

“What used to be just one-on-one has all kinds of iterations at this point,” said Susan Weinberger, a long-time school-based mentoring consultant.

Custom-Fit Formats

Schools are asking students to recruit their own mentors from adults in their social circles, having mentors meet in group formats, allowing married couples to team up to work with one student, even using web cameras to introduce students to faraway professionals who share their interests in fields like engineering and math.

They’re trying custom-fit new formats in part to address long-standing concerns for mentoring programs: It’s difficult to recruit enough volunteers, the adults who do volunteer don’t always match the needs of the school, and some mentors—unprepared for the nature of a mentoring relationship—bail early or scale back their commitments before the program is complete.

Researchers are still studying some of those new formats to gauge their effectiveness, but educators who’ve used them say they have already helped fill a need for more meaningful relationships for students.

A 2014 report by the MENTOR, the National Mentoring Partnership, detailed the “mentoring gap.” A survey of 1,100 respondents ages 18-21 found that about 1 in 3 of the young people had never had a mentor, either through a formal program or through a more informal adult relationship.

That report came amid a resurging push for school-based mentoring. Researchers say public interest in mentoring tends to center on emerging concerns about education and child well-being, focusing on programs that are created or revamped to address those issues.

In recent years, schools’ interest in social-emotional learning, improving attendance, and meeting the needs of students of color have driven an interest in mentoring, said Elizabeth Santiago, the chief program officer for MENTOR.

At the national level, former President Barack Obama’s administration launched a mentoring push to help improve chronic absenteeism, inspired in part by New York City’s Success Mentors initiative, which endeavors to help students show up to class more consistently. Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which spun off into an independent organization at the end of his administration, encouraged cities to create mentoring programs for African-American, Latino, and Native American boys. And research about how consistent adult relationships can buffer the effects of childhood trauma on brain development also drove many schools to explore mentoring programs.

From left: Tonnekqua Dixon, 17, Richard Perez, 14, Zoe White, 14, and Austin Overstreet, 16, pose together last month after a field day event at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C. The students are part of Peer Group Connection, a youth mentoring program that pairs new 9th graders with 11th and 12th graders who help guide them through the transition to high school.

“I think the more we hear about how schools and districts want to focus on the whole child, we see that mentoring can play a role in that,” Santiago said.

Greene Central High School adopted Peer Group Connection, a program developed by the Princeton, N.J.-based Center for Supportive Schools, to help freshmen ease into high school and to encourage upperclassmen to see their own leadership potential.

“We all know as adults that peers learn better from peers,” said Willis, the school’s assistant principal. “I can say the same information, but if it comes from a peer, it comes across better because there’s that relationship piece.”

All freshmen participate in the program in small groups led by pairs of 11th and 12th graders. The mentors, selected through an application process, aren’t all straight-A students or typical student-leaders.

One peer mentor, a student with a history of attendance and behavior issues, was surprised when school leaders selected her to help younger students address the same challenges, Willis said.

Students said the program helped them recognize things they had in common with peers they might not have normally interacted with. One mentor said the responsibility of leading younger students challenged him to recognize the areas where he still needed to grow and mature, and to think about the ways he could help other students.

“It made me a role model,” said Ulisses Ortiz, a senior in his second year of leadership, “and it was the first time that I was given a responsibility like this.”

Student-Initiated Mentoring

Programs that ask students to identify adults whom they would like to be their mentors are also growing more popular, several mentoring organizations said.

Adults who may not respond to an open call for volunteers are often more drawn to serve as a mentor when they know a specific child has identified them as a potential source of support, said Whitney Mastin, the director of operations at the Omaha, Neb.-based Midlands Mentoring Partnership, which helps support programs with issues like mentoring recruitment.

The organization helps screen mentors for programs that help students stay on track academically and behaviorally as they transition out of the juvenile justice system. Rather than recruiting a pool of volunteers, the organization asks students to identify an adult in their life who could serve in a mentoring role. The organization then approaches those adults—sometimes a coach or a former teacher students haven’t spoken with in years—to invite them to mentor the student through a community or school-based program.

“It’s not that those relationships don’t exist,” Mastin said. “But we ask how we can make those relationships more intentional.”

The programs do background checks on student-selected mentors and provide training and ongoing support to ensure that the pairs know how to navigate issues that emerge, from small things like scheduling time together to larger things, like youths who disengage and withdraw from the relationships.

“Mentoring gets painted as a Kodak-moment-rich opportunity…" Mastin said. “Sometimes people just don’t understand that these are complicated relationships. And we can’t give up on these young people even when times get tough, or they don’t want to be around us, or they’re blowing us off.”

Recruitment and Matching

Beyond the challenge of recruiting mentors, some programs struggle to retain volunteers and to identify adult-student matches, mentoring experts said.

In a national survey of mentoring programs recently released by MENTOR, one-third of respondents said they struggle to get half of their student-mentor matches to stay engaged for the duration of their programs. Researchers have found that, when mentoring relationships end early, it can limit the effectiveness of such work, and may even have negative effects on students.

Some schools underestimate the importance of ongoing training and support when they launch mentoring programs, said Celeste Janssen, the director of the Institute for Youth Success, which helps promote best practices for mentoring programs.

“Volunteer management is not just placing a warm body with a student,” she said.

Programs should reach out to mentors regularly to help them address issues and make sure they know how to address students’ concerns, Janssen said.

It can also be challenging to find the right match for students. While programs reported that white women are the most likely to volunteer as mentors, more than half of U.S. public school students are children of color. And a growing number of programs target boys.

“We put a lot of time and effort into getting the right fit,” said Ann Pape, the CEO of Communities in Schools of North Texas, which helps coordinate student supports and mentoring programs in six school districts. “Because we’re working with these students every day, we get a chance to really see what’s going on in their life ... It’s a great way to identify what relationship would work best.”

Those mentoring programs include adults who mentor students one-on-one., and some of those relationships last for years. In 2016, the organization honored a volunteer whose 10-year-long mentoring relationship followed a student to college.

Coordinators also organize some group and peer-to-peer programs, Pape said. For example, high school students at some schools eat lunch with elementary and middle school students, and volunteers from nearby colleges tutor students in specific academic areas and get to know them in the process.

In another unconventional model, students are matched one-on-one with adult mentors, but those pairs meet and do activities with a handful of other mentoring pairs. That approach can be “a good launching board for mentorship” for adults who might be new to it, Pape said.

With every approach, organizers work to inform volunteers of the ins and outs of mentoring in advance to ensure the matches will last. While it can be tempting to recruit volunteers by painting a gauzy portrait of influencing young people, it’s important that they understand their responsibilities at the front end, program organizers said.

“We don’t want to create another route that our students go through where it is not consistent,” Pape said, “or where it is going to break trust.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as To Fill a ‘Mentoring Gap,’ Schools Get Creative


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