Asking for help to keep kids in school; district appeals to companies to allow time for mentoring

Thursday, September 20, 2001
Page 26A

Asking for help to keep kids in school
District appeals to companies to allow time for mentoring

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Fixing the Dallas schools isn’t just a job for teachers, principals and parents. District leaders are making it a job for the general public, as well.

Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses announced a major new initiative Wednesday, asking adults to give one hour a week to mentor at-risk children.

“Most of these children have not had adults to model themselves on,” said Rene Martinez, the district’s director of youth mentoring. “And for many, the mentors they have had have not exactly been positive ones.”

The schools also are asking area companies to give their employees time off to mentor.

The program targets the ninth grade – the year that gives students the most trouble. In Dallas, 34.9 percent of 14,000 freshmen end up repeating the grade. The next-highest retention rate occurs in 10th grade, which only 16 percent have to repeat.

“It’s at the ninth grade where we are literally hemorrhaging,” Mr. Martinez said. “We have a very high dropout rate and a very low graduation rate, and a lot of it starts right there.”

Officials aim to match 1,000 mentors to students by the end of the school year. So far, about 15 companies and organizations have committed to provide about 100 mentors.

Mentoring programs are considered one of the most effective ways to prevent kids from dropping out of school. District officials say about one-third of students drop out before graduation.

The Dallas program is being coordinated through Big Brothers Big Sisters, which says its programs have been shown to have positive effects on academic performance. Only 6 percent of children in its current school-based mentoring program are held back each year, and 84 percent go on to graduate or get a GED.

“Most adults can point to someone in their lives who served as their mentor,” said Rob Alberts, executive director of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters group. “A lot of these kids don’t have access to that kind of role model.”

Adults interested in being a mentor will have to fill out an application and be subject to a criminal background check. If all is clear, they’ll undergo a 90-minute training session and be matched with a student. After that, the adult and student will agree on a time to meet for at least one hour a week.

What form the relationship will take from that point on will be largely decided by the mentor and student. It could involve setting goals, help with academic plans, or talking about family issues.

Mentors in similar Big Brothers Big Sisters programs say the experience is at least as rewarding for adults as for children. “It’s impossible to do something like this and not want to keep doing it,” said Jeff Waldt, a division vice president at Wyndham Hotels who mentors a sixth-grader. “It’s much less effort and much more reward than I’d ever thought.”

“We talk about how I’m doing and how I’m feeling and if I have little problems,” said Katty Lira, a third-grader at Edison Hernandez Academy who has a Big Sister. “And she gave me balloons on my birthday.”

Since he became superintendent in January, Dr. Moses has spoken regularly to business and community groups, attempting to improve a sometimes-shaky relationship and emphasizing their role in turning the schools around. He will be making another pitch Tuesday before the Dallas Citizens Council.

“If we can get 10 percent of those people to get involved, I’ll be very happy,” Mr. Martinez said. “When someone says ‘I want to help,’ we’ll be there to say, ‘Here’s where you sign up.'”

The program’s success will rest in large part on the cooperation of local businesses. Officials hope businesses will be willing to let employees take a weekly hour-long break to make mentoring possible.

“Our employees tell us they appreciate the time and that they might not do it otherwise,” said Frank Bracken, president and CEO of Haggar Clothing, which gives its employees company time to mentor.