Tag Archives: Mentorship

Mentorship Can Make the Difference

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).

“So much of learning occurs in the context of relationships.”

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.

Traditional schools are beginning to embrace mentorship.

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.





Why Entrepreneurs Are Important Role Models for Creative Kids

When Steve Jobs was 12, he looked up Bill Hewlett, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, in the phone book, called him up, and asked if he had any spare parts for the frequency counter he was building in school. Hewlett helped Jobs out with the frequency counter, and then ended up offering him a job on the HP assembly line that summer.

You know the rest of the story.

The benefits of teaching kids entrepreneurship skills have been written about widely. Letting kids build their own businesses gives them hands-on experience solving tough challenges. But working with role models who are entrepreneurs themselves, like Jobs did with Hewlett, can be an amazing bonus that nurtures kids’ entrepreneurial spirit and allows them to envision what’s truly possible.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh’s Startup Something project aims to expose kids to local role models who have become their own bosses. The program brings kids on visits to local technology startups like iTwixie, Thread International, and Idea Foundry.

Startup Something recently matched students with Pittsburgh video game creators from Digital Dream Labs, creators of the cloudBoard video game, for a workshop about game design. Teens were challenged to think like designers as they reimagined the classic board game checkers. First, they pinpointed what they didn’t like about the game. Then, working with their mentors, they incorporated new elements like dice and playing cards, testing each new idea as they went along. At the end, the Digital Dream Labs team explained how their cloudBoard video game was transformed from an idea into a retail product.

To help close the still shocking gap between the number of women and men in STEM careers, CanTEEN offers an interactive game that guides girls through an array of STEM careers with challenges and questions, including some about science greats like Marie Curie and Sally Ride. CanTEEN also sponsors Girls Engaged in Math and Science, or GEMS, which are afterschool workshops that feature local female role models in STEM careers.

Sejal Hathi, a young entrepreneur and medical student who heads up both GirlTank and S2 Capital, shares her thoughts about the importance of young female entrepreneurs connecting with mentors in a piece in the Huffington Post. Her own mentors, she writes, supported her ambitions and helped her find the resources to build her websites. Without these role models, she says, too many young entrepreneurs get lost in the process.

Workshops and afterschool programs are a critical first step for fostering future entrepreneurs, but internships and apprenticeships are also invaluable. The STEAMM Academy (the extra “M” stands for medicine) at Highlands High School is a school-within-a-school that lets kids take part in internship and shadowing opportunities at local partner businesses in the manufacturing, health care, and design sectors. They can also earn up to 23 credits toward a college degree.

Apprenticeships like these can even turn into jobs, which helps both young people graduating in a tough economy and manufacturing employers who are searching high and low for enough qualified people, according to a recent New York Times story.

Beyond helping kids envision their future, programs like these can help cities and regions build their own economic futures. Cities such as Pittsburgh, which suffered population loss during the long years of economic retrenchment, are anxious to keep talented young people at home to build the next economic resurgence. Increasing the capacity on the ground to engage children early is an important first step to stemming brain drain and building a vibrant local economy because increasingly, that economy will be built on the entrepreneurial spirit.

How Mentoring Can Make a Difference

Mentors are an invaluable resource. They open up new vistas for children, offer life lessons and support, or offer a much-needed sounding board for ideas and struggles.  More importantly, recent research has shown that the relationships forged between students and mentors can have a direct effect on youths’ academic performance, attendance at school, and social development.

Research by Jean Rhodes, professor at the University of Massachusetts, found that these relationships are particularly beneficial if mentors themselves have overcome obstacles that are similar to those that kids face, such as attending an underfunded school or growing up in a low-income neighborhood. “Staff can serve as concrete models of success, demonstrating qualities that the youth might wish to emulate and offering training and information about the necessary steps to achieve various goals,” wrote Rhodes.

Mentoring can happen anywhere, but afterschool programs are particularly conducive to mentoring relationships. In fact, it is often the caring relationships between mentors and youth, whether through Scouting or Big Brothers, that contribute to their success. A three-year progress report on YOUmedia in Chicago, an afterschool site in the Harold Washington Public Library that centers on digital media, finds that mentors were the linchpin for many of the teens, and the growing success of the program.

As one of the teens in the program put it:

People [mentors]…have extensive knowledge…they’re all college-educated professionals. They can help you with it…intellectually, technologically, and all that. It’s the environment and the mentors that foster creativity and…it reinforces your interests. It makes you feel good about yourself.

Or as another said, “They always have your back, and I really love that. And, they will cheer you up when you’re down.”

These relationships in afterschool programs do more than just boost IQ or math and reading scores. They bolster those all-important social and emotional skills, like patience, interpersonal skills, confidence, and others. One study even found that the afterschool mentor relationships led teens to reevaluate their relationships with their own parents. Improvements in their home life led in turn to positive changes in adolescents’ sense of self-worth and their academic achievement.

Shared interests are often a great place to start in forging a strong mentoring relationship. And those relationships don’t necessarily have to be face-to-face anymore. Researcher Mimi Ito, one of the experts behind Connected Learning, has found that interest-driven activity online—and she’s not talking about Facebook—is often intergenerational. Students, experts, leaders, and hobbyists all come together in digital communities to talk about their specific interests, whether it’s Making or writing fan-fiction. Such intergenerational, interest-driven learning is at the root of Connected Learning, which is, in short, an educational theory that merges three areas that are often disconnected in the lives of young people: peer culture, interests, and academic content.

In Pittsburgh, mentoring opportunities are expanding. The Pittsburgh public schools program Be a 6th Grade Mentor, which started in 2009, has now expanded to Be a Middle School Mentor, and will continue pairing adult volunteer mentors with middle school students.

“[The program] is focused on exposing children to career opportunities, to educational opportunities beyond high school, and on being Promise-ready by high school,” Charles Howell, mentor coordinator at Mount Ararat Community Activity Center, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Promise-ready,” refers to another local program, The Pittsburgh Promise, which offers up to $40,000 toward college in Pennsylvania to any student who has a 90 percent attendance record, a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and who has been enrolled in Pittsburgh public schools since the ninth grade.

The main goal of programs like Be a Middle School Mentor and Promise Readiness Corps, a team of teachers who, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, work to make sure their students don’t “fall through the cracks,” is to get more of Pittsburgh’s youth ready for their futures through guidance and mentoring.

Save the date: The National Mentoring Summit is scheduled for this January, and registration is now open.