Fairfax County schools and local civic organizations will undertake an unprecedented effort this fall to match students with mentors to ensure that every child has a caring adult to turn to for assistance and guidance.
While many Fairfax schools have their own mentoring programs, most reach only a small number of students. Some schools have no programs. So, Fairfax schools, the Fairfax County Council of PTAs and the Fairfax Partnership for Youth have joined in Mentorworks, an effort to coordinate existing programs and fill in the gaps.
"The idea is to recruit as many adults as possible to work with children . . . so that every child at risk will have an adult monitor--someone to pay attention to what's going on," Fairfax Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said.
Domenech said parents often are too busy or otherwise unable to provide all the supervision and help their children need. Teachers with large classes often can't give students the individual attention needed to catch problems. Mentors can help fill those gaps, he said.
"In a situation where we're dealing with a ratio of 25 to 1 [students to one teacher], it's impossible for staff alone to pay attention to everything that may be going on in a child's life," Domenech said. "The problem is compounded at the secondary level, where one teacher may see more than 100 students during the course of the day.
"It's important to have an adult that has a sense of responsibility for a child, to work with that child, to act as an advocate for that child with the classroom teacher, the principal, the guidance counselor or whoever," he said.
Teachers and administrators will be responsible for identifying students who might benefit from an adult mentor. Parents, and students themselves, also will be able to request mentors. Students will need parental permission to participate.
Existing mentoring programs, including those that involve area businesses, will continue.
Potential mentors will be required to go through an application process, including background checks. The Partnership for Youth has hired a coordinator for the program. The nonprofit group also will help train mentors and coordinate school programs. The Volunteer Center of Fairfax County also is providing assistance.
The Fairfax County Council of PTAs will provide a coordinator at each school to help find volunteers.
The idea for the program came after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in the spring.
"For me, the situation in Columbine was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Rosemary Lynch, president of the county Council of PTAs. "I started thinking about what can we do to prevent something like that from happening in our community."
At the same time, research conducted by the Fairfax Partnership for Youth to determine what services might best help at-risk youth found mentoring is an important need, said Tricia Hutcherson, partnership president.
The partnership, which was organized 3 1/3 years ago as part of an initiative to reduce youth violence in the county, got a $50,000 grant this year from the General Assembly to conduct a pilot mentoring program. The school system will provide additional funding.
Other partnership projects include after-school programs for middle-school students and one that will provide tutoring and homework assistance to students on suspension.
Domenech, who had met separately with Lynch and Hutcherson, brought the two groups together.
The groups will begin planning the mentoring program this month. The program initially has targeted 100 students in a county program for chronically disruptive students as its first participants.
Hutcherson and Domenech will present details of the plan at its kickoff at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday at the County Council of PTAs' back-to-school program at Falls Church High School.
People interested in becoming volunteers can contact their neighborhood school or call 703-246-3460.