Family. “Dr. Babs” Johnston's commitment to mentor Morgan County’s students
This article is the first in a short, summer series on the mentoring program in the county's schools. Please read and consider this kind of a commitment to a local student.
When it comes to Babs Johnston, there's a kind-of mentoring family tree involved.
She started working in the county schools' mentoring program in 1999, as soon as she moved to Morgan County. Then, the mentoring initiative was a more formal process coordinated by the Partners in Education program.
Johnston, a life-long teacher, was initially involved mentoring an eighth grade girl, something that came a bit naturally as Johnston's own daughter was the same age. This eighth grader was an only child in a two-parent household, but was constantly clashing with her mother, something that manifested itself at school when she would get in fights with others.
Within a year of Johnston mentoring her, "her behavior changed remarkably," Johnston said.
Then she went to high school.
Johnston checked in with her throughout her first semester, but by the Christmas break, "she didn't really need me anymore."
On a country road
Johnston lives out in a more rural area of the county, admittedly "on a country road."
Taking her daughter to dance class one day, she noticed two children standing by the mailbox of the house across the street. When she came back from dropping her daughter off, the children were still there.
So, she approached them.
She soon learned that the children – one, a little girl, was in Kindergarten and the other, her older brother, was in first grade at the time – were locked out of their house and their mother wouldn't get off of work until 11 p.m.
So, along with her daughter, she fed the children supper, washed them, gave them pajamas and put them to bed in her own house.
The next day, she went to see the primary school's counselor, who urged her to file a report. She elected not to.
"I was convinced they were in a safe environment," Johnston said. She recognized that they were latchkey kids who, unfortunately, were locked out of their home without a phone and didn't know what to do.
"I thought the best thing I could do is mentor them," Johnston said.
She started with the little girl in Kindergarten, No. 1. Her teacher asked Johnston to help the girl with reading. Johnston also learned the girl and her older brother had two siblings, one 2-years-old and the other 1-year-old.
The next year, she took on mentoring her older brother, No. 2, who was now in third grade.
After working with them on reading, Johnston signed up the family for books through the Children Ferst Foundation, a statewide, Morgan County-based organization she's a staunch supporter of.
A side note, when she began teaching, her job was working with poor children in urban Atlanta. For most of those families, education wasn't a priority. It was encouraged, but living and surviving was the priority, Johnston said.
The Ferst Foundation puts books in homes that wouldn't necessarily have used the money to purchase books, therefore enriching literacy in the household.
"So even if the parents can't read [to their young children, I knew] the older sister could," Johnston said. "And that's exactly what happened."
When No. 3 in this family of siblings made her appearance in Kindergarten, Johnston – who this sister already knew well from her mentoring her older brother and sister – appeared at her classroom door. This would be Johnston's third in one family at one time, her fourth Morgan County student to mentor overall.
As if a kind-of rite of passage in this Kindergartener's mind, she immediately asked, "Dr. Babs, are we going to the library to read?"
Yes, that was exactly why Johnston was there. And, because she'd been read to already by her older sister, she was well on her way to literacy.
"She's now in eighth grade, academically on track, and a very strong product of the fact that books were coming into her home," Johnston said.
In fact, Johnston said, she reads for pleasure, something that seems to be becoming more rare among today's teenagers. Her favorite books? A James Patterson young adult series, Johnston said.
When No. 4 entered Kindergarten the next year, Johnston knew well she couldn't stop. This child, too, "hit the ground running" when it came to reading.
"She was much more prepared for learning and school," Johnston said.
Johnston soon learned that this youngest sibling not only had cousins in the same grade, but in the same classroom. So, when she went to pick up No. 4 from lunch to read, it was just as easy to pick up the cousin in the same class… and the other two cousins who were in the same grade.
And just like that, Johnston went from having four students to mentor to eight.
The next year, Johnston found herself at the middle school with the oldest of the students she was mentoring. She found the eighth grader had a cousin in the same grade and that both were struggling as they'd both failed a course and were in a special program. The teacher let Johnston know that every time she came to see the student she was mentoring, the cousin performed better.
So, Johnston picked up No. 9.
And then she picked up the cousin's older brother, who was at CrossRoads. While she was a very informal mentor to him, that made No. 10.
Eventually, at one point, Johnston had 13 students she was mentoring from the primary school all the way to the high school. All were either siblings or cousins.
After two got too old and "dropped off the radar," Johnston picked up two more. This year, she picked up another, who's in first grade (Johnston also currently mentors her two older siblings as well).
"I've worked with this family for over 10 years to make the children as successful in school as I can," Johnston said.
How Dr. Babs does business
"I've learned a lot as a mentor," Johnston said.
• On mentoring an older student: "It's very difficult to make a significant impact on their lives because the bad habits are so ingrained," Johnston said.
One of the students she mentored early on did drop out of school; however, she's still in touch with him. He's gotten a job and his GED.
• On how Dr. Babs does business: First and foremost, she's learned that she has to lean on them to be sure they know they're expected to stay in school and to graduate.
"I have to get these children I mentor invested in an activity in school," Johnston said.
She started with sports, which went well for most of the boys she mentored, but not so much for the girls. To that end, she now has six of the students she mentors in the band.
"Mr. Rowser and Ms. Seymour love my kids," Johnston said. "All my kids are shy; they don't cause problems. I put them in band to give them something to do."
In fact, the clarinet that one's using passed through the hands of Johnston's own.
"It's the same old clarinet that passed through the Johnston kids," she said.
For the others, the school provides instruments.
• Growing their interests: One of the high school students she mentors happened into the school's cosmetology program. It's turned into something she decided she might want to do as a career.
"I've already set her up with an internship," Johnston said.
• The financial end of mentoring: Johnston emphasizes that this is merely how she does it. Mentoring does not require a financial commitment.
Wanting to give them real-world experience and underscoring the fact that she wants them to take school as their job, Johnston lets the students she mentors earn money for their grades when they reach eighth and ninth grade. Only 'A's, 'B's and 'C's earn money; 'D' and 'F's get nothing.
She takes this so seriously, in fact, that she works two jobs in order to be able to provide this money for them.
"At the end of the year, I take them to the bank," Johnston said. She's opened savings accounts for them, by the way. "Half goes into savings, which can only be used for education. The other half goes to spending."
Spending includes everything from money for field trips to cell phone minutes.
Also, as part of this lesson, the students she mentors that earn money have to watch her complete the finances. So, they get this real-world lesson too.
"I grew up in an upper middle class family with nine siblings," Johnston said. "We never wanted for anything, but we had to earn what we wanted… If you come from a family where there isn't any extra money for stuff, it's hard to find how to get stuff."
• On a related note, family values: Johnston tells the story of her mother. From a less-than-middle-class family, she and her brother went to live with a middle class foster family for a while. When her mother came back to her own family, she brought with her aspirations to be middle class.
"I am the foster family for these kids that my mother got when she was a little girl," Johnston said. "If you expose them to how the majority of people in the middle class live, they'll naturally aspire to that."
• You don't have to take on 13 children to make a difference: Johnston said that she doesn't plan on taking on any more students to mentor. She's going to see the ones she currently mentors through graduation.
She'll be done mentoring in 2023.
"When spreading yourself that thin, you can't be sure every child gets what they need going through Morgan County schools," Johnston said. "Just take one kids, maybe two, and do your best to advocate for those children. Start with them early and stay with them all the way through until they don't want you anymore."
And never say goodbye.
"I think I made a positive impact in her life," Johnston said of the first child she ever mentored. While they're not currently in contact, "I think she'll pop up again in my life."
Printed in the May 17, 2012 edition.