It takes a Village • locals, school staff band together to bolster system’s mentoring program
story by kathryn schiliro
photos and graphics contributed
The Morgan County School System wants, no, needs more mentors.
And about a year ago, that need was fragmented among the county’s schools. Each school acted individually in recruiting and employing mentors, a process that proved ineffective in making the best use of those who volunteered their time and abilities to provide guidance and assistance to county students in need. There was no central point for the mentoring program, no sponsorship of the program, no protocol for the program. Dissemination of information about how to get involved was limited.
Enter Mike Conrads and Pete Caulk–with help from Morgan County Elementary School Counselor Stacy Dearing.
“I’m a Kiwanian and at our Kiwanis meetings, we would have different groups of people from the different schools coming in and asking for mentors,” Conrads said.
The appeal became first come-first served, and subsequent schools that appealed to Kiwanis for mentors walked away with fewer, if any, volunteers because members committed to those school representatives that had come previously to speak to the group.
Conrads saw this and believed, one, that there must be a better, more efficient way to recruit mentors and match them with schools and, second, that a plan addressing longevity was needed for the mentoring program.
Caulk saw the same thing Conrads did.
“The Rotarians and Kiwanians would be getting five to six people talking to them trying to get mentors,” Caulk said.
Caulk became involved as a mentor 25 years ago. An instructor at the Miramar Naval Air Station, he was the pilot for flying scenes for the 1986 film “Top Gun.” Back then, he was asked to speak to local students–mainly “Just Say No” presentations–due to the “street cred” granted him by this claim to fame.
“I ended up giving a presentation to a bunch of resource kids who were having trouble,” Caulk said. “The teacher warned me they would be rude and ill-mannered.”
But, they weren’t. They asked intelligent questions and stuck around after the presentation to talk with Caulk, who soon ended up coming regularly to tutor them; given his life experience–as a Navy pilot then an airline pilot in the Navy Reserve–he spent a lot of this time helping the students with math.
The students he tutored got into college. And the school assigned him more students. It rapidly got to be too much to handle for just one person.
So, Caulk teamed up with the school, went around the Texas town and found more mentors. He worked to match mentors with students and focused the program on academics, which made it easier for mentors and their protégés to break the ice as they had a predetermined subject to address.
According to Caulk, 85 percent of the students being mentored went from flunking out to being on the Honor Roll, and having a mentor, Caulk said, became a “status symbol” at the school.
Flash forward to the present day, and Morgan’s mentoring program.
After clearing the idea with Superintendent Dr. Ralph Bennett, Conrads and Caulk teamed up with Dearing, the school system’s mentoring program coordinator, as well as the Boys & Girls Club’s Bobby Mackey and used their collective experience to begin transforming Morgan County’s mentoring program, to “develop the mentoring program under ‘One Morgan,’” Dearing said.
“This brings everybody together to make it (the process of becoming a mentor) smoother,” Dearing said. “There’s been a complete change in the last six months.”
“The one here’s just starting,” Caulk said. “The biggest thing here is that it’s a coordinated effort for the entire county, a clearinghouse for mentors.”
“We just took over the program, trying to get it fired up again,” Conrads said. “With that, a light bulb went off that there was probably a way to document how this is done so that when someone new comes [they would already have a framework].”
Conrads and Caulk started by coordinating organizations and efforts. They got the schools, Boys & Girls Club and Morgan County Family Connection on board; they established that mentoring could have a variety of meanings and applications.
“We’re combining a lot of different efforts,” Caulk said, “making [mentoring] broader in scope to fit the needs of mentors a little bit better.”
A few principles were established.
Mentoring doesn’t have to be meeting a child during school hours–the mentor’s needs should fit within the program’s needs. For example, if a community member wants to mentor but has a full-time job that doesn’t allow for them to be present during school hours, they can volunteer to help out at the Boys & Girls Club. And the mentor can offer up whatever skills they have knowing a place will be found where the wants of the mentor match a need.
“Whatever the adult wants, there’s probably a program to fit those goals,” Caulk said.
The revamped mentoring program involves careful screening to be sure mentors are properly matched with protégés and puts mentors in touch with students’ teachers “about what kids are doing so they get both sides of the story,” Caulk said. Before, some mentors were improperly matched with students and many fell through the cracks, he said.
Conrads and Caulk took it upon themselves to consolidate and disseminate this information, one-stop shopping when it comes to the system’s mentoring needs.
“Mike Conrads and I go out to recruit mentors and tell them what their options are,” Caulk said.
Conrads and Caulk have spoken to or plan to speak to Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, churches or church groups, Chamber of Commerce members and any business or community organization that will have them.
The mentoring program in the county–which requires no funding, by the way–is up to about 80-100 people and “we’re seeing a rise in those number because word’s out,” Dearing said. In fact, the last mentoring training session on Sept. 20 saw 20 new mentors inducted into the program.
Interestingly enough, many mentors are “a lot more interested in working with students at the high school,” Dearing said. She speculated this was because Conrads and Caulk focus on the graduation rate as part of their appeal for mentors. Interest in mentoring the little ones–primary and elementary school students–has remained about the same, Dearing said, but more men are becoming involved with young school students.
But there’s still a definite need for volunteers, especially male mentors, who wish to serve in any capacity–reading, tutoring, simple conversation, guidance, even just a game of checkers.
“It’s not just mentoring; it’s getting the community involved in the schools,” Dearing said.
If you’re on the fence about it, “come in and talk to us,” Dearing said. “Come in, tell me what you want, what you don’t want.”
Dearing added that some would-be mentors are intimidated by students, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a good, solid resource.” Those in charge can give mentors talking points to break the ice, but even handing out water at Field Day is an option for those who just want to volunteer. The school system won’t turn away community help.
“There are so many volunteer citizens the school system could plug in to help,” Dearing said.
There are a few requirements to become a mentor: mentors have to be at least 21-years-old (Dearing is currently looking into lowering that to 18, but this may have to be done on a case-by-case-basis); mentors have to commit to 45-60 minutes a week, Dearing said; male mentors will be paired with male students, female mentors with female students; mentoring relationships will have well-defined goals as set by the mentor and school’s point of contact; and mentoring has to be done on campus.
The importance of fulfilling students’ needs had repercussions for the entire community, at present and in the future.
“When the prison system tries to determine how many cells they need [in a detention facility]…they take a look at reading scores in third grade,” Caulk said. “If they’re (students) not reading at grade level, [it’s assumed] they may be felons down the road.”
Mentoring can be what the mentor needs it to be; all that the program’s looking for is “consistency over the long term,” according to Caulk.
To become a mentor, volunteers must visit the Board of Education office–1065 East Avenue in Madison–for a mentoring application, which includes a background check that, at present, the volunteer has to pay for; the mentor has to attend a training session; and, finally, the mentor gets carefully matched with a student.
The next training session is set for Monday, Sept. 24, 4 p.m. at the elementary school, and it’s not too late to get on board.
SPEND TIME AT THE BOYS & GIRLS CLUB
Can’t make it to mentor a student during the school day? That’s OK! Take a look at some of the Boys & Girls Club programs that could use volunteer help.
Although it’s a during-the-school-day program, RISE is looking for males in the community to read to second and third graders once a week on Fridays.
A science-based program through the Boys & Girls Club, RISE gets science teachers from the schools to come in and work on science-related subjects with students. If you’re science-minded, this program could be for you!
A summer program, this has mentors take a look at what students will be taught in their next year of school and mentors help to prepare students “instead of letting their minds go idle,” Caulk said.
This program is looking for women from the community to volunteer to come in and talk to young girls–elementary and middle school-aged–about the “choices they’re going to have to make” or life skills.
Volunteers are also needed on a daily basis to tutor students during their homework time, or “Power Hour.”
BE A MENTOR!
The next mentoring training session will be held this Monday, Sept. 24, beginning at 4 p.m. at Morgan County Elementary School. All interested parties are invited to attend, whether or not they’ve completed a mentoring application.
Can’t make it but want to get involved? Contact MCES Counselor Stacy Dearing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Printed in the September 20, 2012 edition