LSS: Mentoring success

When the last students left my sixth grade classroom last week, my emotions were mixed. Surely, I was glad to see them go. But just as surely, my heart was full of melancholy.

Some were going to homes as full of joy as they were.

Others left going somewhere less certain – places many of us don’t know and can’t imagine.

These are the kids who come to school ill equipped to learn nouns and verbs and multiplication charts. They’ve got other more basic survival concerns.

Many teachers are up in arms about legislation that connects students test scores to teacher evaluations and pay. With additional pressure on teachers to improve standardized test scores, imagine the lengths some teachers, administrators and districts will take if their salaries are affected.

It won’t be pretty.

The bottom line is, will additional stress and pressure increase learning or improve test scores?

Some places have recognized other practices make a positive difference — not only in students’ academic performance but also in their lives in general.

Project AIM in Starkville, Mississippi, a college-town with demographics similar to Lafayette, matches students with community volunteer mentors.

“We provide some direct tutoring, but we ask our volunteers to spend 50 percent of their time building relationships with their students – playing games, putting together puzzles, talking about friends and family. Many students haven’t had many positive interactions with adults – at home and school. We want them to understand how to be a friend,” said Cathy Curtis, Project AIM’s coordinator.

Last year, Project AIM far exceeded original expectations.

“Between 35.8 and 45 percent of our mentees experienced improvement in grades in core academic subjects. Plus, seventy percent exhibited reduced tardiness and absenteeism, and 69 percent improved in their discipline referral records,” Curtis said.

Tracking what credit goes to academic help and what goes to the less tangible relationship building experience is “a hard rabbit to catch,” according to Curtis.

“You’ve got children who will say, ‘Nobody has ever expected me to do well, but my mentor is.’ And that alone can help pull up grades,” she said. “Those things are more difficult to measure, but certainly effective.”

Melinda Brakenberry, partnerships manager at Winning Futures, a student-mentoring program in the Detroit metropolitan area that has served 16,000 students since 1994, said her organization has seen similar results – and has the statistical evidence to back it up.

“We have seen students improve their academic grades consistently. We work with a lot of at-risk students. We work with many students who, traditionally, would not have considered themselves pursuing higher education,” Brakenberry said. “Academic goal-setting is a huge part of what we do. Regardless of whether students keep the goals they set in our program, understanding how to set goals is something they can use throughout their lives.”

Could some teachers improve? Yes.

Is it fair to evaluate a teacher on how a student performs on a standardized test when that same student may not have a caring adult in his or her life beyond that teacher? No.

Improving academic results of many struggling students has less to do with added standardized tests pressures for all involved and more to do with building relationships.

(Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. Contact her at For more information about Winning Futures, go

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