Arizona schools are finding great value in mentoring programs for middle schools.
Having access to information about the application process and financial aid is important, but experts say even more essential is having people to inspire, support and guide these students through the process.
Mentoring programs at an early age can have a significant impact on students’ confidence, grades and interest in higher education, according to several of the principals of schools participating in these programs.
The College of Education at University of Arizona, for example, runs a program since 2005 called Project SOAR. Undergraduate students are paired with middle school students to help them start thinking about their futures after high school and to consider the value of going to college.
Dr. Mary Irwin, director of the program, says middle school is the best time to introduce these kids to the option of going to college. Having a better idea of their post-graduation plans gives these students focus and motivation.
The reasons that some students decide not to attend college are varied. While cost of college and doubts about their own academic skills are common factors, many of them just can’t see themselves going to college, according to Irwin. Some minority students struggle with this more when they don’t have teachers or role models from their race.
“I had very few teachers of color.It is tougher on students of color when we do not see ourselves in teachers,” said Tyler McDowell-Blanken, a former Project SOAR mentor and a senior at the University of Arizona studying journalism. “There is this kind of unspoken gap because we feel that they might not necessarily understand or care about our unique experience in society.”
In addition, he said that there were definitely some key people that helped him get to where he is. Finding people he could relate to and who understood his unique experience in society was inspired him to not only pursue higher education, but also move towards a future in education so he can be that role model to other kids.
The results of a 2011 mentee survey Project SOAR conducted showed that 73 percent of them said their mentor motivated them to do well in school and 72 percent reported their mentor increased their interest in going to college. However, neither the schools nor the program have started tracking the students being mentored after they leave their middle schools to see if they actually end up going to college.
“Our diverse students really have benefited greatly-and while I have not tracked grades, the less tangible proof of success is that our students have made meaningful connections with not just a mentor, but the real possibility of college in their own lives,” said Kittredge Bret Harte, principal at Imago Dei Middle School, a school located in downtown Tucson.
These benefits are supported by much of the research being done on this topic. A study conducted in 2011 of several mentoring programs published on the Psychological Science in the Public Interest, How Effective Are Mentoring Programs for Youth? A Systematic Assessment of the Evidence, concluded that, while the evidence points to positive outcomes of youth mentoring, schools should focus on using research as a basis to ensure a “stronger and more consistent levels of effectiveness.”
Schools in Tucson aren’t the only ones benefitting from these programs. Fountain Hills Middle School, located in Fountain Hills, Ariz., has an award-winning mentor program where volunteers serve as tutors and mentors. In addition, several of the schools at Arizona State University have specialized programs to mentor students in the STEM fields and even law. Many school districts around the state are incorporating these outside programs to reinforce the information and encouragement they are already offering.
But not every school has a formal mentoring program. Gabriela DiGiandomenico, counselor at Paul Huber Middle School (located in Douglas, Ariz.), said “as the counselor, I usually just pair students up who I know can be good mentors to them, but we have definitely thought about this (creating a formal mentoring program) because there is value for middle schoolers, for sure.”
On the other hand, some school participate in national or even global programs like Advanced via Individual Determination (AVID) to provide that extra support. In Arizona, 31 districts have incorporated AVID into their curriculum. The Paradise Valley Unified School District (PVSchools) is one of them. They incorporate the program into their curriculum before students even get to middle school, changing the content based on the needs of the age group.
The coordinator for this district, Laura Anderson, says this programs provides tutoring, training and mentoring to ensure that all students get to have a choice to go to college.
“We hold a basic belief that all students can succeed, not just the bright kids with lots of support at home,” said Anderson. “We have to provide that specialized support to every student so that they all have a chance.”