Learning scientists have long understood the special role mentorship and adult relationships can play in a young person’s life. Mentor-mentee connections—supportive and serious, yet less authoritative or formal than a teacher or parent relationship—can make the difference for students.
“So much of learning occurs in the context of relationships,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV a few years back. “And when kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker [to] help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it.”
The Urban Institute recently evaluated two efforts to serve disadvantaged youth of color in the Washington, D.C., area. The randomized control trials found that both programs have boosted their participants’ educational or social outcomes (with varying degrees of significance).
The programs and their respective participants differ substantially, but it turns out they share one important ingredient: mentorship.
The first study is a six-year examination of Urban Alliance, a college and career preparation program that places students in paid internships. Each student works with a coordinator who tracks the participant’s performance and checks in with him or her weekly. They have a few longer meetings each year to discuss post-high school plans. Typically, the mentors stay in touch with their mentees on an ad-hoc basis, providing emotional support and connecting them to resources. The evaluation finds mixed results, but for the male students the program increased their chances of graduating high school and attending college. That impact is important, the researchers note, as males report receiving less help on college and career preparation than females.
The second program, the Latin American Youth Center’s Promotor Pathway, pairs at-risk young people with a “promotor.” This adult wears many hats: case manager, mentor, and advocate. Meeting with a promotor is optional, so it is notable that virtually all the youth in the program choose to do so at least weekly. Here too, males’ education outcomes improved significantly. The evaluators also found positive social results, including fewer births.
The researchers note the importance of mentorship in both programs, particularly for young males of color, who face institutional barriers to success. The mentors serve as critical role models in communities where young people “have little exposure to high-skilled employment in their families or neighbors.” They serve as a support system; the promotor students were 9 percentage points more likely to say they had a special adult in their lives than their peers. Research shows that a long-term supportive relationship with an adult makes a difference, Urban Institute explains.
In fact, there have been many studies backing up the notion that mentorship is important. Students who meet with mentors are far less likely than their peers to skip school or use drugs, and more likely to go to college, according to the federal government.
Mentorship is often built into afterschool programs, where the informal and hands-on setting is more conducive to personal relationships. But increasingly, traditional schools are integrating mentor figures into their practice as well.
The Atlantic recently introduced readers to Jessica Valoris, called a “dream director” or a “warrior of possibility” by the organization she works for, the Future Project. In layman’s terms she’s a mentor, hired by public high schools to help students complete creative projects, figure out what they’re passionate about, and build leadership skills.
Mentorship has recently received national attention, support, and—in January of this year—its own national month. Mentorship is an integral piece of My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), the Obama Administration’s initiative to support young men of color. The White House calls on public and private organizations to improve education and job opportunities for these at-risk students. Some partners have responded by pairing mentors with young men, and the campaign has raised awareness of the importance of mentorship, directing adults to a mentorship opportunity database. The president himself plays mentor to basketball star Steph Curry in a silly sketch.
Pittsburgh has responded to Obama’s call, launching a local MBK effort with an emphasis on increasing access to tech and career-oriented learning opportunities and mentorship for young men of color. The Sprout Fund, the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the Heinz Endowments will support local organizations to boost their digital literacy and career programming.
For some advocates it makes sense that the president is throwing some support behind a mentorship initiative.
“Just as the federal government can see something like health care as a basic need, mentoring should be that, too,” David Shapiro, the CEO of the National Mentoring Partnership, which operates the mentorship database, told The Atlantic. “Having consistent support outside home is essential.”
After all, the government has long funded formal education—and private funders have increasingly followed suit (not without controversy). But there is growing awareness that an effective education system is one that provides opportunities not only at school, but at home, in afterschool programs, and throughout a student’s community. A diverse collage of adults who encourage and teach young people—while also knowing when to step back and allow exploration—is critical to the successes of each piece of the system.