Mentors connect with struggling Central students

DeAnthony Summerfield was getting F's in two classes within six weeks of starting high school last August and was in danger of falling behind in his other classes, as well.

It wasn't until the ninth-grader joined Central Unified School District's 720 Project -- a program that pairs struggling students with mentors -- that things began to turn around.

Now, the soft-spoken 14-year-old beams as he talks about the A he recently scored on his world geography test. The F he once had in the class has since improved to a C.

"I do owe him a pizza for getting an A on his test," said Maisie Young, whose job at Central High School West campus in Fresno includes school safety and student supervision. She volunteered to mentor DeAnthony this year.

The 720 Project, named for the number of days from start to finish in high school, kicked off in January 2009. Since then, 64 freshmen have been paired with adult mentors. The program's first students are now sophomores, and school officials hope the teens remain with it until they graduate.

Mentors are Central Unified employees who volunteer and include principals, secretaries, and even a school board member.

School officials said the mentoring program -- Central's first -- has already made a huge difference: Some 75% of participants have seen their grades improve, and school officials said their attendance has improved significantly.

The district will create a similar program next year for seventh- and eighth-grade students. It will be called the 360 Project for the number of days in middle school.

Mentors are primarily responsible for keeping students focused on school. They check up on their students, using e-mail and text messages as well as talking with them in person. Their contacts include reminding the teens to do their homework or study for tests. Young is in regular contact with DeAnthony's teachers, so she knows what he needs to be working on.

"I like to call them 'professional pushers,' " said Jack Kelejian, vice principal of Central High School West campus and the mentor program's coordinator.

Kelejian said studies indicate that students who fall behind at the start of high school are less likely to graduate. "We know this trend exists," he said. The question for school officials, he said, became: "What are we doing about it?"

The goal of the 720 Project is to identify students in danger of slipping through the cracks -- students who have potential to succeed with a little nudging. These students generally score well on standardized tests, but for some reason struggle in school, Kelejian said. Some students have attendance problems, and a few have behavioral problems.

Not everyone invited agrees to participate. The first year, 75 students were invited to join but only 39 did so. This year, 60 students were asked and 25 signed up. Kelejian said the program is voluntary, because students forced to take part likely wouldn't be successful. "They have to want to do it," he said.

Mentoring is an old idea that is becoming increasingly popular as educators learn more about the positive effects it can have on students, said Carmen Carter, co-founder and president of the Multicultural Women's Council in Houston and a board member for the Michigan-based International Mentoring Association.

By providing guidance and coaching, mentors can help students stay on the path to success, she said.

As a mentoring relationship develops, adults begin to learn more about students and their specific problems -- whether at home or school -- and the adults can identify any social service needs, Carter said.

It's been a positive change for DeAnthony, who admits that before signing up for the program, he slacked off and just didn't do his homework. "I didn't bring books to class," he said.

Young and DeAnthony have developed a close relationship in recent months. She knows about his home life, his parents and his siblings. "He's a good kid," she said.

DeAnthony checks in with Young at least once a day in person, and they talk about many things, not just school. They kept in touch over spring break.

He has come to rely on Young. And, he knows that if he doesn't do his homework, he will have to answer to her.

The mentors are augmenting the work that parents are doing, Kelejian said. "They are that constant reminder. One more added measure," he said. Mentors also provide additional support for the students.

Many of the 720 Project students have seen their grades improve so much that they qualify to participate in sports. DeAnthony is now eligible to attend spring football training, something his once-poor grades prohibited. And Kelejian points out that students who are connected to school through an extracurricular activity typically do better academically.

Central Unified's program isn't unique. Many school districts have mentoring programs, although they vary in scope and duration. Some involve business and professional partners.

Fresno Unified has several mentoring programs, including the Making Connections program that, like Central's, pairs district employees with students. Darrin Person said nearly 30 at-risk elementary school students are involved in the program.

Central hopes to expand its program in coming years and possibly include community mentors. The district is applying for a second-year grant of $2,500 from the California Regional Foundation to help cover costs of T-shirts, transportation for student field trips and luncheons.

DeAnthony said the program has made a positive impact on his education.

"I wanted to be involved in the program because I thought it would help," he said. "And it did."

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