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Providing a Role to Model
Mentoring Program Has Reduced Bad Behavior, Improved Attitudes at Greenbelt Elementary

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

Nick Covington, 11, sat down with his mentor in a little library room at Greenbelt Elementary School. The conversation was soft, with long pauses and unexpected turns.

"What else is going on?" said Solomon Comissiong, Nick's mentor, a University of Maryland employee. "How is your baby brother?"

"He's starting to grow," said Nick, a sixth-grader. He rubbed his face. Then, apropos of nothing: "If I can do something, I would like to spend a day with a scientist. Or a water biologist. And spend a day in the water."

Those expecting a mentor relationship in the Hollywood style, with breakdown, tears and catharsis, might be disappointed. Yet the results of these patient talks have been dramatic in this school of 630 students in Prince George's County: Principal Kimberly Seidel estimates the rate of disciplinary referrals and suspensions has been cut in half since the mentoring partnership with the University of Maryland began last year.

Since Nick began meeting Comissiong once a week this school year, he has turned from a student on a troubling academic and disciplinary track to one who wants nothing more than to spend a day with a marine biologist.

As Nick himself put it: "My grades got better. My behavior has gotten better. And life has gotten better."

Greenbelt Elementary reported 67 suspensions last school year, mostly for threats and fighting, according to state figures. Many were of repeat offenders -- "frequent fliers" to the principal's office, Seidel said. In meetings with parents and students, school officials found that "a lot of them were expressing the need for a role model," said Jacob Novick, the school's parent liaison.

As it happened, staff and students at U-Md.'s Nyumburu Cultural Center in nearby College Park were also looking to get involved.

The center's director, Ronald Zeigler, took on Max Onuoha, 10, who recalled getting sent to the principal's office more than 10 times last year.

Max, a fifth-grader, has kept his mischievous grin and a desire to become a boxer but said he has changed in other ways.

"Last year, I was actually one of those people in the low-grade-level group. . . . I never turned in my work, and I was really disrespectful," Max said. "Now I'm in the group with all the smart people. . . . I don't get so mad and easily start fights. Now I don't fight unnecessarily."

Improved discipline opens the door to academic progress. Max is now on the honor roll. Nick has a C-plus in math but is moving that up to a B, he said. Before leaving, Comissiong gave him some encouragement.

"You're on your way, man. You just gotta keep working hard," he said. "How'd you get better at basketball?"

"By practicing."

"It's the same way with school," Comissiong said. "You gotta put the work in. This is the most powerful muscle in your body," he said, tapping his head. "Your brain. If you don't use it, it can become weak. Seriously. I wish I would have known that when I was your age."

Comissiong said the work has had its effect on him, too, as he tries to set a good example for the youngsters.

"I have to carry myself a certain way," he said.

"I can't speak enough about what the program has done -- not just for them, but for us."

Measuring the Effectiveness Of Mentoring in Schools

Mentoring programs often sound great on paper, but for administrators, the bottom line is: Do they work?

At Greenbelt Elementary, the answer is yes. But the program is small, helping 25 students this year. With larger groups and over longer periods of time, the results tend to moderate. For an at-risk student, spending a summer without mentoring can undo hard-won progress.

That's what Public/Private Ventures, an independent think tank on issues affecting low-income communities, with offices in Philadelphia, New York and Oakland, Calif., found in a two-year study of the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring program published in 2007. Big Brothers Big Sisters serves 126,000 children in the program, the largest such initiative in the country.

In the first year of mentoring, the 1,139 students in grades four through nine evaluated by the study got solid results. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being good, the mentored students earned a 2.77 in written and oral language versus a 2.68 earned by their non-mentored peers. On their quality of class work, they earned a 3, versus a 2.89 for their peers. The results also showed that the students had better discipline and skipped school less often.

But in the second year of the study, improvements tapered off. Almost half of the students didn't continue their mentoring for a second year, and those who continued didn't sustain their improvements from the previous year. Others fell off over the summer and had to make up ground. The study suggested sustaining the mentor relationship longer and holding summer meetings.

The study also found that Big Brothers Big Sisters' school mentoring program cost about $1,000 per student per school year. Although the study described that as a "fairly low cost," in an economic recession every penny will count. For comparison, Maryland spends $11,398 per student, according to the state's Department of Education, and many districts are looking at where to cut spending, not where to spend more.

Finally, a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the U.S. Education Department, found in February that federal grants for school-based mentoring had no statistically significant effects overall but had some positive effects for certain groups of students. For example, girls who were mentored reported increased "scholastic efficacy and school bonding"; boys reported stronger "future orientation"; and students under age 12 were less prone to truancy.

Best Practices

Mentoring is often like a Chinese finger puzzle -- the harder a mentor tries to change a student, the more the student resists. The art of mentoring is becoming a friend, not a parent.

In 1995, Public/Private Ventures published a study on 82 pairs of mentors and children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. It found that after nine months, 24 of the pairs had broken off. The study asked why some worked and others didn't.

"Most of the mentors in the relationships that failed had a belief that they should and could 'reform' their mentee; and, even at the beginning of the match, they spent at least some of their time together pushing the mentee to change," the study said.

The relationships that worked the best were the ones that took the longest to evolve. The mentors gained students' trust and gradually allowed them to open up.

"It takes time for youth to feel comfortable just talking to their mentor, and longer still before they feel comfortable enough to share a confidence," the study said. "Learning to trust -- especially for young people who already have been let down by adults in their lives -- is a gradual process."

Those conclusions were borne out by Comissiong at Greenbelt Elementary. With 11-year-old Nick, Comissiong didn't get right down to business the first time they met.

"They just want a buddy," Comissiong said. With Nick, "We just talked -- 'What's going on?' He's had some issues. . . . The second or third meeting, we started to talk about his grades."

They chatted about science, a great interest of Nick's, and a children's book Comissiong had written. They've gotten close enough that Comissiong has shared his cellphone number.

"We've had some really nice conversations," Comissiong said. "Sometimes Nick will wake me up in the morning."

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