One Child at a Time: The Case of School-Based Mentoring

by Leslie Belt
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 1, February 2002, Family and Community Connections with Schools

D.J. Roberts enjoys personal attention from his mentor, 3M employee George Hare.

The idea that young people benefit from caring and consistent relationships with adults is by no means new. Ever since Odysseus entrusted the education of his son to Mentor in Homer's Odyssey, adults who provide children with prudent guidance have shared the loyal sage's name. Community-based child mentoring got its start in 1904, when Ernest K. Coulter founded a movement offering children in need of socialization the opportunity to connect with "big brothers" who served as positive adult role models. Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BB/BS), has grown to be the largest mentoring organization of its kind. Recently, BB/BS was the subject of well-documented research highlighting the positive effects of mentoring. These studies have clearly shown that mentored students have improved school attendance, grades, and family relationships, as well as a decreased risk of alcohol and drug use (see below).

Effects of Mentoring: One Study's Findings

According to a study of outcomes for youth at five school-based mentoring programs conducted by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, teachers reported that

  • 64 percent of the students developed more positive attitudes toward school.
  • 58 percent achieved higher grades in social studies, languages, and mathematics.
  • 64 percent developed higher levels of self-confidence.

In addition, the study found that mentored youth are

  • 46 percent less likely to use drugs.
  • 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol.
  • 53 percent less likely to skip school.

In response to such success, the demand for mentoring has steadily grown. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, nearly 16 million young people in the United States want or need mentors.

While the exact number of formal, organized mentoring relationships is not known, it is estimated that fewer than one million youth are being served today. Among the innovative program approaches currently being explored to bridge this gap, school-based mentoring appears to offer the greatest promise. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America has projected that by the year 2003, nearly one-third of their mentor-mentee matches will be school based.

As the chart below suggests, school-based mentoring differs from more traditional community-based efforts in ways that appear to have a positive effect on program scope and costs. One of the greatest advantages of school-based mentoring programs is the opportunity to reach many more children.

Because children are usually referred by teachers instead of parents, the school-based programs can reach children whose parents don't have the time, energy, or inclination to involve their son or daughter in a community program.

Key Differences between School-Based and
Community-Based Mentoring Programs

Program characteristics

Mentee referral

Initiated by teachers Initiated by parents
Average monthly time commitment 6.25 hours 11.81 hours
Volunteer mentors are Older, more diverse Younger, Caucasian
Mentees are Troubled students At risk of becoming delinquent
Average annual costs per match (including in-kind donations) Less than $600 More than $1,30

Source: Compiled from information contained in Contemporary Issues in Mentoring, edited by Jean Baldwin Grossman, a June 1999 publication of Public/Private Ventures.

Similar Outcomes, Different Approaches

All school-based mentoring programs—and the administrators, teachers, and community volunteers who serve them—share a common goal: student success. As Jack Lumbley, a program associate in SEDL's Evaluation Services points out, how that success is defined and measured can vary widely: "With the ongoing and increasing emphasis on accountability, people in schools have felt a strong need to be able to justify how they are spending their time with students. Every school has got to be concerned with academic performance. Just how broadly or narrowly a particular school sees the mentor's role affects the possible kinds of interventions that can be offered. Are children best served by adults who tutor them, or by adults who offer them friendship and guidance? Can one adult be expected to fill both of these roles?"

Ultimately, it is a question of view. And the answer is far from clear-cut. A look at two school-based mentoring programs in SEDL's southwestern region illustrates just how broadly contemporary mentoring practices can differ from district to district.

Oklahoma City Public Schools: Academic Success Is the Foundation of Self-Esteem

According to Billie Brown, director of Mentoring, Tutoring and Volunteer Programs for Oklahoma City Public Schools, 70 of the 94 schools composing this large metropolitan district are currently engaged in some sort of mentoring or tutoring program. Academic success is highly prized in Oklahoma City, and it is the clear objective of all mentoring efforts. While friendship and trust are seen as valued side effects of the mentor-student relationship, success is measured in terms of academic growth, which averages about one year across the district. For the 13 Title I schools who have invested in the Help One Student to Succeed (HOSTS) program, however, the average growth has been significantly higher. HOSTS is a nationally recognized mentoring program in which volunteer tutors guide students through complex learning experiences.

Brown thinks that much of students' self-esteem is based on how they do at school: "I don't know how you can begin making an impact until you start dealing with academic success. That's why all of our mentoring programs have a learning component to them. And frankly, with an average student growth rate of one year and seven months, the HOSTS program is by far the greatest success."

In large measure, this highly structured program works because the needs of its participants are clearly defined, Brown explains. "We look for children who are what we call 'at promise'—kids who would normally fall a little bit behind each year. The HOSTS program is successful because we test these students to identify the academic skills they need to work on. Based on this information, we put a tutoring plan in place. Mentors sit down with students one-on-one for approximately 45 minutes a week to work on specific skills."

Each of the more than 2,500 mentors now serving in the Oklahoma Public Schools has received at least two hours of training. Brown says this training helps to raise comfort levels: "We give the volunteers a variety of tutoring tips and success strategies, as well as a basic orientation to district procedures and guidelines." She adds. "We like our mentors to know exactly what they can expect from us, and what's expected of them."

Austin Independent School District (AISD): Self-Esteem Is the Foundation of Academic Success

Success is just part of the fun for Wooten Elementary student Diana Aguilar during her weekly visit with mentor Laura Alvarado, a 3M employee.

Austin Independent School District (AISD) serves 78,000 students. Of these, 25 percent have special needs or are at-risk. For more than 18 years, Austin Partners in Education (a joint venture of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, AISD, and members of the business community) has worked diligently to provide AISD with resources to better education for more children. Of these donations of cash, time, and in-kind contributions, mentoring remains the most highly prized and sought-after gift. Pat Dabbert, AISD director of educational partnerships, explains why.

"One of the reasons AISD is a strong believer in people serving as mentors to our students is that it makes a big difference in their behavior as well as in their academic success," she says.

According to Dabbert, AISD views mentoring and tutoring as very separate skill sets. "Mentors serve a different role from tutors for our students. They are more like friends. Mentors are people students can share things with, someone who is totally focused on them. Some students don't have that opportunity with any other adult in their lives. Ultimately, we've found that mentoring bolsters self-confidence and self-esteem, which helps students do better academically. Not all students need tutors, but I think most students would appreciate a mentor."

Not surprisingly, in AISD these days demand for mentors far exceeds supply. With just over 2,000 mentors officially serving in the districts' 103 schools, Dabbert admits that recruiting is one of her biggest challenges. "One thing we're doing as we go out and talk to companies is encouraging them to be creative and flexible." She notes, for example, IBM currently has 120 e-mail mentors—workers who can't physically leave their jobs but work with Barbara Jordan Elementary School students online. "As a district, we're trying to remove barriers and focus on what's good for students. School by school, class by class, we're open to new ideas," Dabbert says.

Measuring Up

A highly structured, tutoring-based program like HOSTS provides mentors, students, and administrators with academic objectives and goals against which student achievement can be assessed in a relatively straightforward manner. However, mentoring programs that don't focus strictly on academics may require assessment of multiple outcomes such as student changes in attitude, classroom behavior, or attendance. It's a tall order, considering that it is time consuming and takes a lot more planning to measure life-skill changes. And while it may be possible to obtain this data by surveying teachers, parents, and students or by observing the mentored students while they are in their classrooms, the fact remains that we may not be able to directly link mentoring or a student's social progress with higher academic achievement.

Caught between Two Camps

The pressures of the increased demand for accountability was the subject of a recent conversation with Sarah Nelson, principal of Josephine Houston Elementary School in Austin. Like all school-based mentoring programs in the Austin Independent School District, Houston Elementary encourages and supports friendship as the number one objective of the relationship between mentors and students. This was not my first time in Nelson's office. My mentee Jeanette (now a fifth grader) and I have met with her on many occasions in the two years that I have been mentoring at this large urban school.

It takes a team to make mentoring work. Jeanette's mentoring team includes, clockwise from top, mentor Leslie Belt, parent specialist Bertha Cherry, principal Sarah Nelson, mentee Jeannette Belmares, and teacher Blanca Saunders.

"Mentoring programs that used to help children develop into successful adults with good coping social skills are now all about raising test scores," says Nelson. "We're in an age where if it can't be measured in numbers, it isn't worth anything. It's hard to gather qualitative data about the power of change. I think that's why people go to programs like HOSTS. It's very clearly defined and it's fairly easy to manage once you get it up and running."

But Nelson sees mentoring more as a way to provide positive role models for students rather than as a method to boost test scores. And though she is concerned about the social costs of measurement-based education, she by no means opposes accountability. "In terms of measuring our success, I'm a supporter of accountability. I'm even okay with testing as long as it's one piece of the pie. But right now it's the whole pie." She continues, "If I wanted to do a case study to document the changes in Jeanette, I could find lots and lots of people to support the idea that Jeanette has changed. Jeanette could talk about that. That's time consuming. But if I had numbers we could say, "Yeah, Jeanette's tests scores went up.' Which they did, by the way, they did go up. But what can I attribute that good news to? Mentoring? Teaching? What? I don't know. This is something I struggle with all the time in terms of where to put resources, because resources are limited."

It Takes a Team to Make Mentoring Work

When a child succeeds, we all succeed.

Regardless of which approach a district takes, there's a lot to be said in favor of mentoring. It is simple, sensible, and cost-effective. Whether mentors and mentees are working on reading skills or life skills, they have a better chance of succeeding if their relationship is based on mutual respect, shared interests, and clear expectations. While thoughtful matching of mentor to mentee will help this relationship get off to a good start, it takes considerable support to keep it growing strong. When principals, counselors, and teachers join the mentoring team as advisers, cheerleaders, and friends, they send a clear message to the mentor, mentee, and community: When a child succeeds, we all succeed.

What You Can Do to Support the Mentoring Relationship

Teachers can support the mentor-student relationship by
  • Respecting the mentor's time with the student.
  • Being willing to give the mentor advice when asked.
  • Allowing the student to invite the mentor to participate in appropriate classroom activities.
  • Letting the mentor know if the student is sick or unavailable.
Administrators can support the mentor-student relationship by
  • Clearly communicating what's expected.
  • Providing mentors with training.
  • Providing a meeting space and activities.
  • Acknowledging the mentor's contribution.
Counselors and parent support specialists or parent liaisons can support the mentor-student relationship by
  • Making the mentor aware of child development or psychological issues.
  • Helping the mentor understand child safety reporting responsibilities.
  • Clarifying confidentiality issues.
  • Helping to resolve conflicts.

3M Austin Center in the Business of Making a Difference

Photo of Jill Slack
3M's corporate-sponsored mentoring program is a reflection of the organization's core value commitment to give back to the community. These volunteer mentors spend one hour per week at nearby Wooten Elementary School.

Since 1985, this 3M global sector headquarters facility has been an active supporter of Austin Partners in Education. Currently a team of 28 employees volunteer as mentor friends to children at nearby Wooten Elementary School. It's business as usual according to Myra Schomburg, who directs 3M's Mentoring Program as part of the company's Community Affairs organization within the Corporate Marketing and Public Affairs Department. "Two of 3M's core values are respect for social and physical environment and to be a company that employees are proud to be a part of. We believe that our mentoring program addresses these corporate values. We believe that it is part of our social responsibility as a company to give back to the communities in which we have facilities. And we also think it is a good vehicle through which our employees can be proud of who 3M is in this community."

It's a business strategy that's working according to Bernardo Martinez, Wooten's parent support specialist and 3M's main contact while on campus. "Both parties benefit. Our 3M partners feel great about sharing their time, having a little friend. They are excited. Sometimes, I have to say, 'OK, guys, time's up. You're going to be late for your jobs.'" In addition to his duties at Wooten, Martinez is actively involved in recruiting mentors for Austin Partners in Education. He offers educators the following advice on how to get the business community involved with your school.

"The biggest tip is to somehow make time to go out into the business world and share what you need at your campus. Let them know that the school needs their support. I'll be driving down a street and see a new business. I walk in there and ask for the manager. I keep it brief. Introduce myself and leave my card. In a few days I call back to see when we can sit down talk about how we can work together. I figure I'm either going to get a yes or a no."

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