How mentoring can help a child succeed in school, life

Barbara Carrington has raised her grandson Alex since her daughter's death two years ago.

Raising him alone, though, she knew she needed more positive role models in his life. She turned to Cobb Mentoring Matters, a program that matches volunteers with children throughout the Cobb school system, and found a mentor who has helped Alex navigate his adolescence.

Alex is a fifth-grader at Bryant Elementary in Mableton.

"Alex is definitely growing with more confidence, and the hurt and anger has been replaced with joy and determination to do well in school," Carrington said. "I believe the program has been a game changer for us, and I would encourage others to get involved."

The mentoring program has reached nearly 400 students since its inception in 2012. Coordinator Maryellen Gomes said she can see a difference in the children who find a stable, healthy adult to depend on.

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta has found that 94 percent of the children in its mentoring program improve in school.

Nearly all graduate from high school on time, and almost all of them avoid the juvenile justice system. This is significant, because 44 percent of the 2,139 children involved in the program last year had a parent who is incarcerated.

Big Brothers Big Sisters serves 12 metro Atlanta counties, with the greatest numbers coming from Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb counties. About 10 percent are involved in a school-based mentoring program, with the remainder involved in a community-based program. The organization has a list of more than 700 children waiting for a mentor.

According to a recent University of Houston study, school-based mentoring programs can have a hard time finding success. The study focused on middle school students, but Gomes found it helpful for her program, which involves students in 60 Cobb schools across all grade levels.

"While community-based mentoring programs have been shown to be effective, the largest form of mentoring — school-based mentoring — has produced small, null and sometimes harmful results," said the study's lead author Samuel D. McQuillin, an assistant professor in the College of Education's department of psychological, health and learning sciences. "We believe that one way to address this is by developing models of mentoring that are brief, effective and reproducible."

Both Big Brothers Big Sisters and Cobb Mentoring Matters focus on longer-term matches. The study said retention of mentors can be a problem, but Gomes said nearly all of her mentors have continued for years.

Instead, the retention issue she faces is with a more transient student population.

Both groups place a focus on training, as the Houston study suggests, although they use different approaches.

"It's my job to keep the mentors trained," Gomes said, adding that a lengthy orientation is followed by training sessions once a semester. "The orientation is a critical part of the process. You get a sense of the mentor's energy, their personality. Nothing can beat that one-on-one interaction."

Big Brothers Big Sisters uses a self-study mentoring guide that is online, like the one used in the research.

"To ensure mentors are adequately trained on the basics of mentoring, we require all mentors to complete training on being an effective mentor," said Mikkel Hyldebrandt, the organization's marketing and communications manager. "We have found the self-study approach to be successful, as the mentors can complete the training at their convenience."

The Houston study, which followed 72 middle school students in an urban charter school, found the students who were mentored showed improvements to their math and English grades after three months. They also had fewer absences and said in surveys they had more life satisfaction.

"Middle school youth typically have decreased academic motivation and life satisfaction along with higher truancy than elementary students. Mentoring can play a significant role in combating these," McQuillin said in the news release about the study. "But nationally, very few programs provide meaningful training, which may prompt mentors to stop the program, leaving their mentees with a sense of loss or even rejection. ... This study provides promising evidence that brief, instrumental mentoring programs can improve school-relevant outcomes for middle school students."

For some kids, like Alex, community mentors can mean the difference between a good school year and a bad one. Both Big Brothers Big Sisters and Cobb Mentoring Matters are recruiting community-minded individuals who are willing to spend some time with a child.

Contact them or your local school district to find out more.

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