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Building Capacity Through Peer to Peer Mentoring Programs

May 2, 2010

I had a significantly opportunistic and life changing experience while employed by an urban public school district in central Pennsylvania.  As a fourth year teacher in 2001, I overheard that the district had access to approximately $150,000.00 US to implement an in-house alternative school program for truant and excessively absent students.  As I sat idly in my apartment that weekend, I analyzed the larger dilemma and began to construct a proposal for the district’s first attempt at a night school since 1969. I recall working feverishly all weekend and printing the final proposal late Sunday night. I returned to work on Monday and submitted my proposal to the head principal who reviewed the document and was satisfied by the contents. She further stated that she would present the proposal when the principals convened for their weekly meeting at the Office of the Superintendent.  

Several days passed when I received a telephone call requesting my presence at the superintendent’s office.  At this meeting, and as occurs with most originators of a program or mechanism, I was asked to leave my teaching assignment and subsequently offered my first administrative assignment supervising five teachers and 150 at-risk students.  To this date, I have not looked back since.

Alternative education

The students/attendees of the program were provided a core course daily assignment within the minimum time required by the state department of education. Further, an on-site employment preparation program was made available by a local African American female* who possessed a 501c3 (non-profit) with a focus on job skills and fiscal responsibility.  To make a 6-month story short, whole group average daily attendance increased from thirty-one percent (31%) to ninety-two percent (92%) while more than thirty percent (30+%) gained employment through the support and efforts of the kind but ambitious lady with the 501c3. Bottom line, communicating our desire and the dire necessity for students to attend and actively participate served as the lifeblood of the program.

Despite feeling possessive of my first program, it was time to let it go and allow the lettered professionals nurture and expand a small idea into a fully functioning alternative education program.  I was truly happy with the level of participation, learning, and confidence building wrought over the previous six months.

Transition

The success of the program coupled with fiscal accountability and strong program dynamics helped me gain access to the ‘big house’, otherwise known as central administration.  As the newest and youngest member of the grant writing team, it was in this seven foot by thirteen foot room that a phenomenon was unfolding that would drastically alter my perception of public school education.

The initiative: Renaissance Program

Several months had passed before I was called to the Office of the Superintendent and informed that I was being given an assignment to meet with a local contractor turned banker turned philanthropist.  Using available state tax credits, the gentleman was interested in funding an after school program.  Understanding that he was limited in his ability to create such, I became the point man given great responsibility to create and supervise a successful program although I had no background relative to afterschool programs beyond knowledge of their existence.  The gentleman was willing to put forth $50,000.00 US dollars for the first year with an option for a three year commitment if the program exhibited results.  At the time, he was only concerned with the academic achievement aspect of the program and gave little consideration to the external influences and possible affects.  We didn’t know the externalities would eventually take center stage as influential components towards success.

First round draft picks

Although I would not consider myself scholarly at the time, I was able to work within budgets and create successful programs using researched theory.  I wanted to work with a state testing grade level that was mature enough to be actively engaged, but still required guidance and support. With this, I chose the fifth grade class of one elementary school.  I created an application that included general program information and several parental consent forms.  I received fifty-four completed applications from which twelve students would be randomly selected to participate.  As a marketing major in undergraduate school, I fully understood the importance of marketing hype; especially with a voluntary educational program. I held a thirty minute ooh and ahh session in the atrium of the school where a locally well known pastor reached into a container and randomly extracted twelve names.  Students were overwhelmingly excited when their names were announced.  Funny enough, to this day, I don’t believe all twelve elementary students even knew what they were excited about but what they did know, however, is they were finally chosen to be a part of something. Still, I was unsure whether the $50,000.00 US would be adequate to run a three hour per day, four days per week, thirty week program. Working within these limited parameters forced me to be creative in terms of curriculum and personnel choices.

Each one, teach one

I did not have enough funding available to hire teachers for part time work.  Therefore, I was inspired to look elsewhere for staff/personnel.I’ve always been a proponent of the ‘Each One, Teach One’ mantra and felt elementary students could benefit from a positive experience with high school students.  Growing up, we always looked up to and wanted to emulate the older kids.  This did not always transfer into appropriate decisions, but in a controlled environment, it had the potential to work.  I pitched the idea of having six of our most ambitious high school students become paid tutors (under adult supervision) to the elementary population randomly chosen to participate in the program.  Once I sold the idea to the philanthropist and senior administration, I immediately created an application to be distributed to the junior class at the local high school.   To my dismay, I received a paltry number of applications by the deadline, but the quality, not quantity, was of the utmost importance at this point.

I was able to reduce the number of high school applicants to a manageable number and began a vigorous interview period with the high school applicants. Fortunately, the six high school students were secured within several days and I was able to schedule an introductory training session by week’s end.

We were excited to see if the 2:1 mentee to mentor ratio would work. All fingers were crossed in hopes of success. 

Curriculum

I did not want to use the same texts and resources the students had access to everyday.  If I were to utilize the same ole, same ole, the program would surely be doomed to failure.  Additionally, I did not have the funding to purchase anything with a hard cover. Thus, I needed something fresh and affordable within the remaining $25,000.00 US dollars.  I began to search online and through every school merchandise mailer for a computer based math and reading curriculum that could be used through a twelve month licensing agreement.  With the help of a friend in the Information Technology Department, we were able to find, test, and purchase an affordable computer based math and reading curriculum. 

180 minutes

The three hour after school program incorporated an hour for homework, an hour for math, and an hour for reading.  This provided time for students to work within a hybrid context ensuring that traditional studies existed alongside the technologically progressive aspect of the program.  Further, opportunities for interaction and purposeful dialogue between the high school mentors and elementary mentees occurred.  After some time, I began to observe a type of older sibling-younger sibling relationship develop between the students.  We had, in essence, set the tone for a mentoring program within the existing tutoring component.

Final obstacle

Anyone who has had the opportunity to piece together field trips or programs for students knows transportation costs are often the make or break factor in the sustainability of a program. After some thought,  I decided the high school mentors/tutors would be transported to the elementary school across town by simply riding the high school bus that drops off in that section of town.  They were able to access the six o’clock athletic bus to get home at the end of the day.  Problem solved.

All in all, the success of the program was not limited to the academic success of the fifth grade mentees.  The aggressive application of a technology and computer based curriculum enhanced my perception of technology integration in the classroom. Although a hybrid model in the very least, a heightened sense of accomplishment was evidenced during site observations and informal dialogue. The young students were hooked on the technology.  Further, peer to peer student mentoring developed organically as positive relationships were formed and socially responsible practices emanated from the high school mentors.

Outcomes

High school student mentors

  • Employment/work experience
  • Teaching
  • Mentoring
  • Responsibility
  • Letters of recommendation
  • One hundred percent graduated to a four year college/university
  • Several entered college as elementary education majors

Elementary school student mentees

  • Averaged 178 points and 185 points above the districts fifth grade average on PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) math and reading examinations
  • Most entered the districts advanced placement high school of science and technology
  • Purposeful use of technology
  • Reduction in disciplinary action
  • Increased daily attendance
  • Increased parent participation

And the rest, my friends, is history.