Mixing at-risk high school and elementary-aged students might sound like a plan for perpetuating bad habits. But when asked to serve as mentors, the high school students stepped up, and they and their charges are learning about themselves and each other. Included: Description of a high school-elementary student-mentoring program.
A few years ago, Wilson (Pennsylvania) Elementary School principal Kathleen A. Sites realized she had a sense by third grade which students might be at risk of dropping out of school.
Hoping to re-engage those students in their studies before they left elementary school, Sites came up with a plan to pair them with at-risk high-school students. The combination of needy younger students with older students thrilled to feel needed has benefited both groups of youngsters -- despite concerns expressed at the outset of the program by elementary and high school teachers and parents.
"This has been one of the most effective programs for at-risk students," said Sites. "I can't tell you how much it means to see kids who have been written off achieving some success."
The four-year-old program involves about 60 students, Sites told participants at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) 2006 annual conference. This past school year student mentors were bused from West Allegheny High School twice a month to the district's three elementary schools to spend the day with their mentees.
For many of the high school students, the mentoring experience is the first time in their lives they have felt successful, Sites noted. The younger children thrive on the individual attention and help the older kids feel needed.
"We look at the strengths and needs of both students and try to complement them," Sites said. "So far only one pairing has not worked out."
The mentoring experience already has helped redirect some high school students. Overall attendance for the mentors has improved, according to Sites. "We do have some struggling kids, and we also had a number whose grades have improved dramatically," said Leon Strimel, a guidance counselor for students in grades 9 and 12. "Some [mentors] now are interested in going to college and studying education."
Selling the program to both schools, though, took some work.
"We met initial resistance at both levels," Sites said. "At the elementary level, people said, 'Why are you bringing those kids here?'"
The elementary school counselor also was concerned about confidentiality. "We stress [to the high school students] that if the kids bring up anything about guns, drugs, or abuse to tell an adult," Sites said. "If a child says he or she has a crush on another student, keep it to yourself."
Strimel admitted he, too, was skeptical at first, but now is a big supporter of the program. "I decided to see if it really worked," he said. "It really took off. It has become a successful tool for us to use with students at risk of not graduating."
Among the reasons for the program's success are the careful selection of participants and formalized training and continuous support for the mentors.
Elementary students are recommended for the program by the principal, teachers, or an instructional support teacher, and also must have parental permission to participate.
The students selected for mentors are not always the ones who are acting out; they are the ones falling through the cracks, Sites noted. "A lot of the elementary kids involved don't feel they have much worth," she said. "We stress to the elementary kids that they have things to offer."
"They were in social isolation and had no positive peer group," added Sites, in describing some of the potential mentors. "They felt powerless and bored with school. This group often includes kids with disabilities or a lack of self-esteem."
Once high school students are tapped, they must apply, get one letter of reference, and obtain permission from their parents. Then the principal, a counselor, and an assistant principal or assistant superintendent interview them. "It's similar to the process they would go through if they want to get a job," Sites noted.
If students are accepted as mentors, they must participate in two or three three-hour training sessions after school. During the training, instructors talk to the high school students about the importance of what they are doing, how to dress and conduct themselves in the elementary schools (no multiple body piercings allowed), what information to keep in confidence and what to tell an adult, the necessity of attending all the meetings at the elementary school because the kids look forward to seeing them, and tips for tutoring.
"We talk to them about how to behave with kids and teachers," Sites said. "We remind them that elementary kids react differently. We also discuss a problem-solving model with the high school students. We tell them no putdowns between peers, because elementary students won't know they are joking."
Elementary teachers also are told not treat the high school students as a classroom aides, that they are there specifically to work with one student.
Every five to six weeks, the mentors get together and share experiences in maintenance sessions. They talk about what they've done and what they've learned about themselves and their mentees, Sites noted. "We do some problem-solving exercises, talk about any changes they've noticed, any reflections."
So far the program has had only one incident in which a high school student was talking about something inappropriate and wasn't allowed to continue as a mentor, according to Sites.
School staff members emphasize to the mentors that they have responsibilities not just to themselves and their mentees, but to their peers, the school, and the program as well. "We give them leadership roles; we have team captains, they have to take attendance and make sure everyone gets on the bus," Strimel said. "The kids self-manage."
Mentors also need to learn to manage their time and assignments to remain in the program. They must go to their teachers ahead of time to get their assignments and homework for the days they go to an elementary school. "Even though they are missing class, it benefits them in the long run," Strimel said. "They are responsible for making up work and they have to learn to manage their time to make up a test. Normally, these are the types of kids who would never do that."
Mentor names also are on an eligibility list, just like student athletes, which means they must maintain a certain grade point average to continue participating.
Anecdotal information from students and parents about the program has been very positive, Sites said.
"The high school students learn about their abilities and strengths. The parents of the mentors also have been very supportive," she added. "We meet with the high school parents to ask them to be supportive and ensure homework is done. We stress to the kids that they have things to offer."
The elementary students seem to benefit from the individualized academic and social attention and interacting with a positive role model, Sites said.
"The little ones think they [the mentors] are smart," Strimel added. "The older students like the younger kids. For once in their lives, someone is looking up to them."