As an idealistic and energetic principal in South Carolina in 1981, Ricky Line created a program in which teachers were assigned as mentors to specific at-risk students. The program did not live up to Line’s expectations, however. “I did a poor job of getting buy-in from teachers,” he admits. “I was young. I should have done a little more prep work.” Years later Line decided to try again. Now the superintendent of Hart County Schools, a largely rural district in south central Kentucky, he wanted to improve the district’s graduation rate and believed that a mentoring program would be just the way to reach the students most at risk of not completing high school.
Line’s prep work this time around began with investigating why certain students were dropping out. “We found out that kids were dropping out because they had no connections,” he says. “We knew we needed to do something for this group of kids. Most of them don’t play a sport, aren’t in the band, aren’t in a club.” Line’s strategy was simple: Match each at-risk student with an administrator who will have regular contact with that student and help him or her become more connected to the school.
Line introduced this new program in 2007 and called it “My Team.” Administrators in each school identify those students they believe are most likely to drop out because of problems with attendance, academic performance, and/or behavior. Each administrator then selects five or six of these students to be part of his or her My Team. Administrators then commit to reaching out to these students on a regular basis through conversation, phone calls, invitations to participate in after-school activities, reading a book together, and other means. They also commit to contacting parents in writing and in person.
When Line first proposed the My Team program, Chris Mueller, principal of Hart County High School, had one big reservation: How was he going to fit mentoring relationships with five or six students into a schedule that was already full? Now that My Team has been in place for two years, however, he is an enthusiastic supporter. All six of the students in his My Team group graduated this year, including one young man who had dropped out and gotten a job in an auto repair shop. After learning that he could not advance at the shop without a high school diploma, he came back to school. “This was his one shot,” says Mueller, adding that at age 20 “he would have aged out had he not completed high school this year.”
Vyetta Reynolds, principal of Munfordville Elementary School, was ready to participate from the start. The administrative staff at the school had already been informally mentoring at-risk students. “The My Team program gave it a name and a structure,” Reynolds says. Students in the My Team program at her school are in grades 5-8. As an example of My Team’s success, she points to a boy who just finished eighth grade: “He was so bright but didn’t have the support at home to make sure everything was turned in. He started out the year with C’s, D’s and F’s but ended with A’s and B’s.” She adds that while he had often been in detention for “little things,” after he was placed on her My Team he was never again assigned to detention.
Intervention by Stealth
Although the My Team program has a clear structure and requires deliberate implementation, it doesn’t seem that way to the students—at least at first. For most of the first year, says Line, “most kids didn’t know they were on My Team.” They also didn’t know that their mentors were mentoring other students. All they knew was that an administrator had taken an interest in them. By now, Line says, all the students who are in My Team know about the program; most others don’t.
It is too soon to know statistically what effect My Team has had on the graduation rate. However, the anecdotal evidence from administrators, coupled with increases in test scores and attendance and decreases in behavioral problems, tells a clear success story. The connections these administrators have made with students have kept them in school and made them excited about being there. “Investing in that sort of positive relationship tells a student that ‘you matter to somebody,’ reports Mueller. Line agrees. “A relationship is the biggest thing we can do for a child,” he says. DA
Don Parker-Burgard is associate editor.