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Providing a Role to Model

Mentoring Program Has Reduced Bad Behavior, Improved Attitudes at Greenbelt Elementary

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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.

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"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.

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