Using mentors to raise students’ expectations of themselves

We recently shared the work that Principal Doris Lee of Village Academy in Queens has been doing with her staff to improve their relationships with students as a means to improve learning particularly for their students of color.

Two high school principals have taken a slightly different approach to addressing inequities in their schools. Seeking to reach the young men who often cut school, arrived hours late, struggled academically, ran out the door as soon as the bell rang rather than take advantage of after school programs, Principal Terri Grey of Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts and Principal Kim Swanson of of Life Sciences Secondary School established innovative mentoring and arts programs. (with grant support from the NYC Leadership Academy, made possible by the Booth Ferris Foundation).

Mentoring at Life Sciences Secondary School

When Swanson became principal at Life Sciences, most of the students being suspended were boys of color with IEP’s who had been left back and were behind in credits. She wanted to find ways to engage these students, to support them academically while helping them navigate the challenges that some of them faced outside of school, like poverty, violence, and racism. “They just had no real connection to the school community because they had consistently been kicked out of classes,” Swanson said.

In her second year, she took 30 of these students to an event at Monroe College, where they heard young men of color talk about struggles they had overcome with support from mentors and a brotherhood of classmates. The students left inspired – they wanted a program like that in their school.

Swanson contracted with AimHigh Empowerment Institute. Starting last January, two professors and several of their students went to Life Sciences once a week to plan sessions with the high school students and train school staff to be mentors. Swanson strategically chose five staff members to serve as mentors -- three teachers, a school safety agent, and a school aide, each of whom already had good relationships with, and high expectations for, the students.

Swanson and her team grouped each of the 20 students with mentors based on need. Students behind on credits and struggling with similar issues were put together and matched with a mentor they thought could support their particular challenges and push them toward similar goals.

Mentors started building relationships with the young men by sharing their personal stories about challenges they had overcome. Students were inspired. “If they could change to get to be who they are now, I can do the same thing,” one student said. “I started thinking, ‘If I change my ways, I can be something instead of being a statistic.’ So I just started acting different.”

The first few weeks of the program were about students demonstrating their commitment to the group, showing up to every weekly meeting, learning and understanding the group’s pledge and how it relates to their own lives, and writing their personal stories of where they are and where they want to go. Students who made it to the initiation after six weeks got to share their stories with their families.

Contact with mentors went well beyond the weekly group meetings. The mentors gave students their cell phone numbers to use anytime. And almost every morning, each student received a text from his mentor, checking in and sharing some inspirational words or a video. 

“I think for a lot of these kids, there's somebody that's checking on them when a lot of other people have written them off,” Swanson said. “The mentors are men who look like them, have had similar experiences to them, and are open to speaking to them about those experiences.” Students are learning to advocate for themselves, with support from a mentor as needed. One student was regularly getting kicked out of his English class and failing assignments. His mentor explained to the teacher some of the students’ challenges and the work he is doing to overcome them. The teacher started to give the student a chance. Within a couple of months, his grades rose from 50s to 70s and 80s. “I’m changing,” the student said. 

In group meetings, students to talk about their challenges. One student who had recently been in prison and was new to the school spoke with the group about needing to make new friends and remove himself from people who were pulling him down.

They are learning to make good decisions when faced with conflict. Mentors taught them the formula “Events + Response = Outcome.” “It made me realize that my actions can change everything,” one 11th grader said. “I used to have a bad attitude with everybody. I see now when I walk away from situations, it won’t escalate like it used to.”

They pay attention more in class, their grades have improved, they are getting to school on time. Three-quarters of the students improved their overall course average during their first year in the group, and two-thirds improved their attendance.

Before joining the program, one 11th grader said he rarely did his homework and didn’t care if his grades dropped. “Now if my grade goes down even one percent, I can’t take it,” he said. “I’m ready to go back into class and ask for more work. I’m starting to value things more.”

The program is also about brotherhood, the support the young men give each other every day. When one student was worried he was going to fail his science class, they all made a pact that they would graduate together.

This year brought a new crop of young men to the group, and the seniors have been mentoring them and regularly checking in on them. The older students are hoping to support younger students so that they can avoid some of the challenges they faced when starting high school.

Turning students into filmmakers at Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts

Principal Terri Grey also had a group of young men of color who were disengaged from school and sliding further from graduation. By the end of 10th grade, one-third of boys of color were in danger of being left back, even if they had started high school the year before on track to graduate.

Since students had been asking for a film program, Grey worked with a theater ensemble that was already offering arts programs at the school to secure a film instructor who would teach the students all aspects of film production, from storytelling to using a camera to editing.

She chose a diverse group of fifteen 10th grade young men of color who had scored below proficient on their state ELA and math tests in 8th grade and had been part of an all-male advisory group the previous year. To address the students’ academic and social-emotional needs – some were English language learners, some had disabilities -- Grey had the school guidance counselor run weekly after-school group meetings with the boys, and later added mentoring and tutoring.

“We needed to keep them involved and connected as a group, to give them the support network they need and then tap into their interests to keep them engaged in school,” Grey said. In the counseling sessions, they discussed finances, academics, social issues. They worked on their interpersonal and communication skills. “I learned how to manage myself, to become a young man instead of just a boy,” one student said.

With the filmmaker, they learned all the technical skills of the trade: using a camera, positioning the lighting, directing actors, and writing a script. And they learned about themselves and each other. In figuring out their film’s focus, they talked about sexual abuse, police brutality, mass incarceration, racism, issues that affected them personally. They discovered that they all had a common goal: to graduate from high school. “We wanted the film to show what we go through as men of color and that that's not gonna stop us, that we are gonna reach that goal,” one student said.

They called the film “Minority Reality: The Fight for Humanity.” Explained one young filmmaker, “Racism is real. But there’s a sense of humanity between us, it's the unity that we have.” The 15-minute film depicts young people of color playing sports, discussing challenging events, overcoming obstacles, and celebrating academic success. “If you turn on the TV, you see a black boy go to jail. We want to show the good side of men of color,” one student said. “We’re the new generation of kids and we're trying to fix the wrongs that have been committed over the past. We don’t want to be seen as successful for a black man. Not successful for a Latino man. We want to be viewed as a successful man in all races and all kinds.”

The young men learned perseverance. The film was hard work, they said. Working on the film and studying for Regents exams “pushed me to my limit,” one student said. “I saw how hard I could really work.” They learned to schedule their time and set priorities and goals.

They learned teamwork. The film editor would stay at school until 7 some nights just to make things easier for the rest of his team the next day. “I’m not a team player,” he said. “This showed me it makes things easier when you cooperate and communicate.”

They learned to squash stereotypes and believe in themselves: “We might not live in the best neighborhood, but at the end of the day, look where we're at. We did all of this in just a couple of months. We're the lights for the future.

“This project gave me the sense of accomplishment. It was so much work, but I just stuck with it and I finished it. Now I feel like I can tackle a lot more other challenges.”

With support from her coach, NYC Leadership Academy’s Valerie Vallade, Grey also refined her vision around outcomes for the boys. She used the program to start to change staff mindsets and expectations. Grey held a staff retreat for the school’s guidance counselors and advanced placement teachers. They screened a draft of the boys’ film, and then talked about not just getting these students to pass 10th grade, but getting them truly college ready. “I don’t want them to just aim for mediocrity,” she said. She wanted them taking advanced placement classes.

In just a few months, the young men showed improvement. Looking at the boys’ attendance, credit accumulation, performance toward Regents preparation, and after-school participation, Grey said they have been able to keep all the students on track for promotion to the next grade. And many of them are dreaming of careers in film, hoping that this project will open doors to internships and film schools.

Grey relishes the fact that this program started from the boys saying, "This is what we would like to do, this is how you can keep us engaged," and her team being able to say, "Okay, we will do that for you." Said Grey, “I feel like that's why I left the classroom to become a principal -- I want to be able to hear what kids want to do, and then provide it for them.”

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About the Author — Jill Grossman

Jill Grossman is Senior Director of Communications and Research at the NYC Leadership Academy.

We needed to keep the students involved and connected as a group, to give them the support network they need and then tap into their interests to keep them engaged in school.

Principal Terri Grey, Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts

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