In a conversation about changes in social expectations of children in communities, juvenile advocate and community orgnizer Jolon McNeil remembered her own childhood in comparison with the worlds and schools of the children she dedicates her life to helping. “If I had gotten suspended,” McNeil said, “everyong in my family, everyone in my community, and everyone in my church would have kicked my butt.”
Today’s students have it differently, McNeil says, because of a disconnect between schools and communities, that same level of home awareness and community consequences have faded into the past for many.
While it is a tough sell that schoold should or could step in and take the space of the family, community and faith organization, there is something they can do that requires minimal resources and improves the lives of everyone involved.
Every kid needs a mentor.
Mentoring builds social and cultural capital in students, connects them with singular adults whose purpose is to support the student, and ties students to an anchor in the community.
For the community, the benefits are equally plentiful. Mentoring is an investment in the community, not in an economic sense (though that argument can also be made). Instead, mentoring is an investment in growing the kind of citizens, neighbors, and community leaders mentors want to live alongside in the coming years.
To be certain, teachers can be and are mentors to the students they teach. We spend more time with our students than many of them spend with their parents in the later grades. Connecting with students on online platforms like Facebook is a form of mentorship in that I am able to model appropriate behavior, find connection with students who are feeling lost and can’t bring themselves to make contact face-to-face, and step in as an adult when students push too far past what is acceptable conduct in any community – online or off.
Expecting teachers to be full mentors is laying an unliftable weight on their shoulders. The thick connections inherent in a full mentoring relationship require time and personal committment impossible with a roster of 150 students.
Schools can be the conduits and catalysts for mentoring relationships though.
Wanting to match as many of its students with mentors as possible, Phoenix Academy, a magnet high school in Sarasota, FL that recruits only the lowest achieving students in the district, sought to build its capacity to meet its goal by partnering with those already doing the work.
The school contacted the local Big Brothers Big Sisters office and explained their goals. BBBS said they could help. In a matter of weeks, the school welcomed representatives from the organization into the school one evening. Also in attendance were those community members school personnel were able to recruit into mentorship. Throughout the course of the evening, the would-be mentors navigated the school district’s volunteer clearance procedure and received BBBS orientation training and clearance checks en masse.
By the night’s end, Phoenix Academy had scores of new mentors on call to match with its students, Big Brothers Big Sisters made contact with many community members with whom it would not otherwise have likely connected.
Most importantly, in the weeks that followed, Phoenix students were matched with caring adults from the community in whom they could find a friend, advocate, and mentor.
These kinds of partnerships are possible in communities and schools across the country. They need only a school willing to set the goal and make the initial investment in organizing the effort.
We need to match kids with mentors.