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Mentors Boost Student Reading Levels

Private mentoring organizations help districts meet NCLB requirements

In the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, a suburb of Indianapolis, Ind., 97 percent of first- and second-graders gained at least one instructional reading level, 82 percent rose two levels or higher, and 34 percent rose three levels or more in the 2005-2006 year.

In the same year, second-graders in the Pasadena Independent School District in the Houston area gained an average of 1.3 years on the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, a state assessment tool, and 86 percent of students passed their reading class with an average grade of 78.

And in Brewster School District 111, an agricultural community in Washington state where most students speak English as a second language, about 80 percent of students meet state assessment standards, some having risen as much as two grade levels in their reading skills over a year's time.

While students and teachers should take credit for these gains, credit also is due to thousands of volunteers in local communities who mentor students struggling with reading. Spurred largely by reading requirements of the No Child Left Behind act, more districts across the country are recruiting volunteers. And the results are impressive.

The districts already mentioned are among thousands of schools nationwide using formal mentoring programs that assess struggling readers and then use research-based best-practices interventions. Various programs include HOSTS Learning, a Vancouver, Wash.-based company that has delivered structured mentoring programs to more than a million students in 1,200 school systems since 1971. HOSTS, or Helping One Student To Succeed, offers other programs, including writing, vocabulary, math, critical thinking and study skills.

Unlike other well-intentioned community-based mentoring programs that link adults to children outside of school settings, these organizations provide organized mentoring targeted to the specific needs of individual students.

"School-based mentoring is the most popular form of mentoring in America today," says Susan G. Weinberger, president of Mentor Consulting Group of Norwalk, Conn., another mentoring group. "Schools are pushing to improve their test scores and reach higher standards. But along with that, there has to be someone at a child's side who is really an advocate, a nurturer, a positive role model, and also promises to come back and check on them next week."

Aside from striving for academic improvement, the mentoring program has other benefits, Weinberger adds. "It improves kids' self-esteem, their relationships with their peers, their interests, their attitudes and their desire to stay in school," she says. When students improve their academic performance, they feel better about themselves in other ways, too, experts agree.

HOSTS Learning's Research and Training

But mentoring doesn't work in a vacuum, according to Bill Gibbons, chairman and founder of HOSTS Learning. "For any program to be effective, it requires a planned strategy," he says.

The HOSTS' strategy begins with research, as programs are customized for each school depending on various factors. The company surveys each school, collecting data and interviewing principals and staff members to identify students who would benefit from the program. Factors relevant to that school are considered, including demographics that might impact achievement. In Brewster, for example, many residents who work in the local fruit industry live in poverty, and such students would come to school with more challenges that administrators could be aware of.

Then HOSTS staff members present their findings and make recommendations to the superintendent and other district staffers. HOSTS calls its process a "structured mentoring strategy" because it is based on research that will produce the kinds of outcomes that everybody wants, Gibbons explains.

Mentoring improves kids' self-esteem, their relationships with their peers, their attitudes and their desire to stay in school. -Susan G. Weinberger, president, Mentor Consulting Group, Norwalk, Conn.

Next, HOSTS sends teams of educational consultants into schools to train mainly veteran teachers and administrators, who will subsequently recruit and train the mentors from the community. In most programs, teachers and mentors discuss how the students are doing along the way.

Schools in districts that have contracted mentoring organizations have little trouble recruiting willing volunteers from their local communities. In Wayne Township, where 450 students in 11 primary schools take part in the program, about 1,000 mentors come from more than 135 community "partners," which include businesses, religious institutions, and local police and firefighting units.

Districts find partner organizations and individual volunteers through direct contacts, stories in local newspapers, and events like an annual HOSTS breakfast that the Pasadena district holds every August, before school starts. Mentors from past years are invited to attend and bring guests, who might subsequently volunteer.

Employers Support HOSTS Learning

Two major businesses with company facilities in Wayne Township-Rolls-Royce and FedEx-allow more than 100 of their employees to take time off with pay to mentor students in the local schools. All volunteers commit to at least one hour per week. Some have been with the program since it began five years ago. Students are mentored Monday through Friday with a different mentor every day of the week.

Members of the Wayne Township district's own staff-from custodians to accountants to Superintendent Terry Thompson-have also taken on mentoring. "I wouldn't ask anyone to do something I wouldn't do myself," Thompson explains.

Every Monday, Thompson spends a half hour each with two second-graders. In the first 10 minutes, he works with them on books they are reading. Then they spend 10 minutes on vocabulary. The final 10 minutes are spent on "some type of educational activity, like synonyms, prefixes and suffixes, but in a game format. They love it," Thompson says.

Mentoring is "hard work but it's as rewarding as all get-out." -Terry Thompson, superintendent of schools, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, Ind.

Two of Thompson's administrative assistants do the same with the same students Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and others follow on Thursdays and Fridays to provide consistency as students work through their reading lessons.

"We have seen significant growth in student achievement," Thompson says. The 2005-2006 year-end test results confirmed that 142 second-graders had advanced at least two instructional reading levels, compared to 90 students the year before.

"It's hard work but it's as rewarding as all get-out," Thompson exclaims.

If the mentors had been paid it would have been worth about $534,561, officials say. Instead, the district gives them tickets to school basketball games, chili suppers and other events to show appreciation.

While the mentors are not compensated, school districts pay for the mentoring programs they use. Gibbons says costs for HOSTS programs range from $30,000 to $50,000 per school in the first year of the program, from $10,000 to $15,000 in the second year, and from $7,000 to $10,000 in the third year and beyond.

HOSTS Learning Lures Older Students to Help

In Pasadena, where 1,100 students in grades K-5 were mentored last year, intermediate and high school students, not just those in advanced academic classes, have joined community volunteers. "It's been a win-win situation for both sets of kids," says Ginger Lay, the district's HOSTS volunteer coordinator. "It gives them [the older students] good self-esteem" to help struggling readers, she says.

Altogether, 2,811 Pasadena mentors contributed 28,473 hours in 2005-2006 representing a value of $513,652.92. Their commitment paid off in test results: 86 percent of the program's students passed their regular reading class with an average grade of 78.

In Brewster, about 120 residents, out of a total of 2,500, mentor 60 students, mostly in third and fourth grades, in Brewster Elementary School. Mentoring takes place throughout the day, starting before regular school hours and continuing after school, in a special HOSTS room that is attractively decorated with a patriotic theme, says Principal Eric Driessen. This year, the theme is "HOSTS Wants You," playing off the World War II U.S. military recruiting theme of "Uncle Sam Wants You," Driessen says.

"It is a positive place and the kids absolutely love it," he says. "They know why they are there-to get help with their reading. We even have kids who don't need mentoring ask to be there."

Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring Program

Mentoring programs offered by other organizations reveal similar success. In three school districts in St. Louis County, Mo., 95 percent of students working with tutors from the OASIS Institute, a national nonprofit organization based in St. Louis, showed improvement in reading achievement in 2004-2005, when 65 percent of the students increased their scores within one school year.

The students had been once considered to be struggling readers or at-risk pupils. "Often children who experience difficulty in reading are unable to improve their scores by one [grade level], so these improvements can be considered significant," says Judith Kamper, an educational researcher and adjunct instructor at Maryville University in St. Louis who has studied the program's impact.

The OASIS Intergenerational Tutoring Program, which operates in more than 100 school districts in 21 cities, pairs volunteers 50 and older with children in grades K-4. The tutors participate in an in-depth training program where they learn activities, techniques and strategies to help children learn to read. Activities emphasize the range of communication skills-listening, talking, reading and writing-that educators consider necessary to develop language and build reading skills.

Power Lunch Program

In the Washington, D.C., area, about 1,500 mentors from government agencies, law firms and businesses partner with 3,000 Title I elementary school students for one-on-one reading during school lunch hours in "Everybody WINS! Power Lunch Program." This nonprofit initiative was launched in 1995 by a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators and their staff members. It's a grassroots organization similar to other mentoring programs but funded mainly through corporations, civic groups and foundations, so schools don't have to pay for the program.

"It connects two lives that ordinarily wouldn't meet each other," says Mary Salander, Power Lunch Program executive director. "One of our goals is to encourage the students to believe that they can succeed, and that is important in motivating them to read."

An evaluation of 20 percent of students in the program at the end of 2005-2006 showed that 25 percent of poor readers improved their academic performance, more than double the rate of struggling readers in a control group in the study.

The Power Lunch Program hires part-time coordinators to work in schools to ensure "everything runs well," Salander says. That means adjusting schedules as necessary to be sure students and mentors are not left in the lurch if one cannot make it to school on a given day.

Weinberger, of the Connecticut mentoring group, agrees it is essential to have a person in each school be "the connector" between mentors and students. She says it's also important to have "an outstanding educational leader," or principal, and teachers who do not consider mentoring as "just one more thing they have to worry about."

Weinberger suggests that mentors break their hour-long periods with students into four 15-minute segments: First, question the student: "How did you do in school this past week? What can I help you with?"

Second, "read, read, read."

Third, "if they want to continue reading, fine. If not, take a walk around the school with the student or engage in another physical activity or arts and crafts project."

Finally, read one more chapter and talk about it the next week, or pick out a new book in the classroom or library.

Federal Grants Help Mentoring Programs

Under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities section of NCLB, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Education to award grants to local education agencies, such as districts, and non-profit community-based organizations for children who are "at risk of educational failure" or potentially becoming involved with such ills as gangs or drugs.

"It is a positive place and the kids absolutely love it. They know why they are there-to get help with their reading. We even have kids who don't need mentoring ask to be there." -Eric Driessen, principal, Brewster Elementary School, Brewster, Wash.

Results of a 2000 study supported by a DOE Office of Educational Research grant suggested that formal mentoring programs are a promising complement to the traditional community-based mentoring model. Mentors primarily aid students, which pays off in their class work and helps teachers. "We believe the classroom is still the most important resource to help children learn," says Gibbons. "And we want to make sure that what happens when there is intervention relates to what is happening in the classroom."

Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Maryland.