What if you could change a young person’s life just by listening to them for 30 minutes once a week? You can.
The Lake Pend Oreille High School (LPOHS) is inviting community volunteers to do just that – actively listen to and encourage a student once a week for a half-hour at the school – as part of the national Check and Connect program launched by the University of Minnesota 25 years ago.
The program pairs volunteer mentors with academically at-risk students, and the resulting relationship prompts the student to engage in their education, discover their strengths and plan for academic success. And it works.
Luke Childers, the graduation coach for LPOHS, summarizes the successful approach in three words – relationships promote engagement.
The Check and Connect goals of increased attendance, persistence in school, accrual of credits and school completion rates all dovetail perfectly with the goals of LPOHS. Only one semester into its implementation, the program is starting to show signs of success. The positive results are exciting and Childers is enthusiastic in relating them.
“Out of a hundred students, we have 21 students who chose to enroll in the mentor program,” he explains. “The students’ rate of credits failed has dropped from 143 to 50, and 15 of the 21 students have shown improvement in their attendance. When relating available student data from last year to this first semester, we have seen a slight decrease in behavior referrals as well. Even though we are only looking at data from the first half of the year, there seems to be some real improvements.”
Thus far, teachers have taken the mentoring role. Now that the benefits are so apparent within the LPOHS academic setting, it’s time to launch the program long term, and that calls for the next step: community involvement. Childers believes Sandpoint has “a wealth of individuals who have experience that would be wonderful for these at-risk kids.”
Childers is quick to explain that the mentor’s role is one of sustained support and requires no educational or psychological accreditation. “The mentor is not a tutor and doesn’t need to be qualified as a teacher or counselor. The only skills involved are active listening, problem solving skills and a positive outlook. Mentors aren’t responsible for solving the student’s problems and giving them solutions, either; instead, they work with the student on solving his or her problems. They encourage and help the student to recalibrate their academic approach and try again.”
Just as training wheels balance a beginning biker as they learn to pedal and gain their own momentum, so a mentor provides support as the student learns to self-motivate and self-support their own decisions, solutions and goals.
This unique approach works for many reasons, one of which is its ability to transform a student’s shoulder-shrugging acceptance of failure into a proactive plan for success. “They’ve had so much failure, it’s no longer a deterrent for them,” reveals Childers. “It’s become palatable to them. When they are told they must complete an assignment or they’ll fail a class, their response is basically, ‘So?’”
That’s where the life-changing power of the student/mentor relationship kicks in. Relationships create student engagement with the school process. “A relationship with a supportive mentor can make all the difference,” affirms Childers.
Failure is still a part of the process, but with the mentor’s encouragement, the student’s response becomes an assessment of what went wrong and how best to try again. “One of the terms coined within the program is ‘perseverance plus’ because mentors work from a strength-base with the students,” Childers describes, “to support them in realizing and acknowledging their strengths and creating goals and solutions based on those strengths.”
Considering all the challenges they face, the students are amazingly resilient. Returning to school day after day resembles the brave mile-by-mile persistence of the runner refusing to quit even when running into “the wall” of fatigue or feeling as if another step is an impossibility. For a mentor to come alongside the student and be a rest stop of comforting encouragement is to help a winner on their way.
In the special mentor/student relationship, the mentor’s commitment of a year (or more) is of paramount importance. It should consist of continuity in working through problems, and a positive, optimistic attitude that is non-judgmental and compassionate, with the goal of developing the student’s strengths rather than a dependency. The weekly half-hour meetings are best when impromptu at the mentor’s convenience, which works well for volunteers with busy lives that need scheduling flexibility.
Volunteers (aka World-Changers) please call Luke Childers, Monday through Friday between 8am and 3pm at 208.263.6121 ext. 4264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Mentor’s Perspective
Phil Ronniger is a tall man with a quietly intelligent persona and a beneficent nature that motivates him to help others. Although his background is in career counselling, coaching and job transitioning, what Ronniger mainly brings to the mentoring process is his presence.
“These young people often don’t have strong role models they can trust, who’ll be there when they say they’ll be there,” he explains. “And that’s a really important part of this program – someone to be there that they can connect with.”
His shared story with student Dalton Turley began for the same reason many mentor/student relationships begin. As Ronniger tells it, “Dalton wasn’t coming to school very often. His goal was ‘I just want to get out of here.’ He was a delightful young man, great smile, very forthright. His teachers said, ‘Oh gosh he’s great, he helps other students, he’s a giving person, he just doesn’t show up for class!’”
What does their mentor-student relationship look like? “We’ve more or less talked. How are you doing? How are things going? Are you going skiing? He likes his longboard and his good friends. I try to keep it light – listening rather than giving advice and orders. It’s about finding ways to relate to another person, and although it’s more challenging with a generational difference, I can relate from having my own children, grandchildren and also being an adolescent myself.”
And what are things like now? Wonderfully different. “He’s doing well, getting his work done. My role with this young man is to be there. It’s really quite a casual relationship. We’ve talked about what he wants to do when he graduates, and other school-related issues that have set him back a little bit. But he’s there and I just try to be there.”
For someone who prefers to know exactly what to do and how to do it, guidelines and problem-solving materials are available, and the mentor can carefully track the student’s academic progress.
The students aren’t the only recipients of the mentor program benefits. “These teachers have a lot to do,” says Ronniger, “and there’s a lot of energy they have to expend with these kids and any help they can get, I really feel it’s appreciated.” Listen a life into changing; feel appreciated. Anyone interested?
Photo 1: Participating student Joel Mitchell and LPOHS graduation coach Luke Childers. Photo courtesy LPOHS.
Photo 2: Participating student Dalton Turley with his mentor, Phil Ronniger. Dalton says, “I think it helps students feel like they are not alone and there is help for them. My mentor is really cool and I really enjoy meeting and talking with him, especially when he takes me out of gym.” Photo courtesy LPOHS.
Photo 3: Just as training wheels balance a beginning biker as they learn to pedal and gain their own momentum, so a mentor provides support as the student learns to self-motivate and self-support their own decisions, solutions and goals. Photo of Lake Pend Oreille courtesy Moranda Berkley.