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Mentoring Program for At-Risk Students Gaining Momentum

Community schools and organizations join forces to help at-risk students and narrow the achievement gap.

Jack Bryant, president of the Stamford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has a goal of for Stamford Public School students by this fall.

By the start of the 2011 school year, Bryant wants every at-risk student below proficiency level in grades six and nine to be paired up with a mentor from the community to meet once each week. If it seems a bit ambitious, the Stamford Public Education Foundation (SPEF) doesn’t seem too worried.

“Jack can move mountains,” said Susan Rigano, executive director of SPEF. “If he says 100 people, he will get at least that.”

The idea came while Bryant began discussing the to target at-risk students — and ultimately — to help close the achievement gap. While a charter school project may take years to get off the ground, Bryant and SPS Superintendent Joshua Starr, while working with SPEF and the Board of Education, decided a mentoring program was a way to help students now.

“The majority are black and Hispanic males,” Bryant told Patch. “We thought we could get mentors for those students that are below proficiency level to begin in September.”

Bryant added that female mentors are also being sought out for below proficiency girls.

To begin their quest for mentors, Bryant and Starr discussed their goals on an episode of the News 12 series "Our Lives," which was taped Feb. 5 and aired Feb. 11 and 12.

“We received a lot of positive feedback from the show,” Bryant said. “It was a very successful program. We talked specifically about the mentoring program and I received a lot of emails from people who want to start mentoring.”

Going forward, Bryant said he wants to target local churches, community centers, corporations and colleges to find additional mentors and sponsors.

The idea stems from a mentoring program that began in . The Middle School Mentoring Program, launched by SPEF, Dolan Middle School, , and , began its pilot program in January 2010, and after seeing its success, the program was retained expanded for the 2010 school year.

Forty-three college students were partnered with 46 seventh-grade students. Of those students, 38.6 percent showed an improvement in absenteeism and 63 percent engaged in positive after-school activities. Comparing second and fourth period report cards, in language arts alone, 30.4 percent of students improved their grades and 78.2 percent improved their behavior.

“There are four objectives that the mentor sessions touch on: goal setting; improving academic achievement; involvement in extracurricular activities; and college and career preparation,” Matthew Quinones, program director at SPEF, said.

“It’s very structured and we get write-ups from the mentors after each session,” Rigano said. “We want to make sure the conversations are sticking to the overall goals of the program. There’s a strong personal bond that is established with students and mentors over time.”

In addition to one-on-one weekly mentoring sessions, Quinones said the group takes field trips as well. In 2010, trips were taken to batting cages where the students met former Major League Baseball player and Stamford legend Bobby Valentine. Another field trip was to the UConn-Stamford campus where the mentorees were able to meet with several professors and attend three classes.

“The students were really engaged, they loved it,” Rigano said.

Bryant said he hopes to incorporate a community service element into the mentoring program as well.

Although mentors meet with students just once per week, Bryant said he is seeking out mentors that would ideally commit to working with a student for several years.

“There’s a trust that’s built between a mentor and a mentee so we want committed men and women to do this program,” Bryant said. “We don’t want a student to have to go through five different mentors. Just because we are starting with grades six and nine doesn’t mean that’s it. We start a student in sixth grade, but we want a mentor to stick with them into high school.”

Students who are identified as being at-risk students must receive their parent’s permission before being paired with a mentor. Every potential mentor receives a criminal background check and a two-hour training program in August provided by SPEF.

“The results are twofold,” Bryant said. “This is both a way for our men and women to give back to the community and a way to narrow the achievement gap.”

If you are interested in becoming a mentor, contact the Stamford Public Education Foundation or Jack Bryant at jackbryant2010@yahoo.com

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