Mentor for America: Exploring Unified Best Practices in After-School Mentoring Programs

Mentor for America: Exploring Unified Best Practices in After-School Mentoring Programs

Hannah Alexander and Laura Londoño

Abstract

The United States experiences a strong culture of mentorship programs for all ages. Schools, churches, community centers, service groups, and universities set up opportunities for young people to engage with older, more experienced mentors that guide them through a wide range of life decisions and areas of personal growth. These mentoring relationships vary in core purpose, format, setting, frequency of meetings, and overall scope. Given the diverse nature of mentoring programs in the United States, this report explores the value and scalability of a specific mentoring model in which college students are paired with local middle school students in a three year program.

 

Introduction

The Jones-Zimmerman Academic Mentoring Program, hereafter referred to as JZAMP, is a three year academic mentoring program that pairs college students at urban universities with local middle school students at risk of dropping out. This free after school program creates an environment in which local middle schoolers can further their academic and life skills while developing a close relationship with a college student wholly invested in their success. Our experience with JZAMP’s successes in building on the motivation of students who have committed to the program, combatting the trend toward low performance in math and reading, have inspired us to explore the expansion and scalability of this model currently concentrated in three Connecticut based  universities and their four corresponding middle schools.

In this report, we will couple our understanding and experience with the structure of the Jones Zimmerman Academic Mentoring Program with the Teach For America model. We will explore how TFA’s recruiting, training, and impact model can be applied in standardizing and scaling up three-year college mentoring programs throughout the United States.

Teach for America has a streamlined recruiting, placement, and training structure for its corps members. It provides on-campus recruiting at universities, encouraging college juniors and seniors of all academic backgrounds and interests to consider teaching. Beyond recruiting, Teach for America bridges the gap between new teachers and their placement schools through placement relationships and matching. This reduces the barrier between new teachers, and schools seeking to recruit new teachers, in working with one another. TFA additionally guides new teachers through training, certification, and preparation for their first day of teaching.

The aforementioned model allows Teach for America to place over 3,300 new corps members in schools throughout the country each year, providing them with a “skeleton” of tools they need to make a successful transition from college to the world of teaching. (TFA, 2017) Though different in nature, purpose, commitment level, and scope, this report will explore the ways in which TFA’s scaling model can be used to implement the J-Z AMP model throughout the country. More specifically, it will consider how a standardized method for recruiting and training college mentors for a three-year mentoring commitment can curb trends of low-impact programs throughout the country, changing the culture of mentorship altogether.

Background

Mentoring Programs

Academic research pertaining to mentoring programs shows mixed results. In a meta-analytic review conducted by a group at the University of Missouri, it was determined that there was “evidence of only a modest or small benefit of program participation for the average youth.” (Allen et al., 2008) However, the data demonstrated that, “program effects are enhanced significantly, however, when greater numbers of both theory-based and empirically based ‘best practices’ are utilized and when strong relationships are formed between mentors and youth.” (Allen et al., 2008)

This data demonstrates an imminent need to disseminate, employ, and enforce these “theory-based and empirically based ‘best practices.” Perhaps more importantly, it alludes to “practices” that do not work, and a responsibility to ensure that they are not universally employed. Given the wide scope of mentoring programs in the United States, however, bad practices are both ubiquitous and diverse in nature. We now will briefly explore what some of these practices look like.

Models That Do and Don’t Work

In the study conducted by a group at the University of Missouri, it was determined that “best

practices coincided with “multifaceted intervention program[s]” where “mentoring is linked to other supportive services.” (More specifically, they are usually installed to promote “positive youth development” and/or “instrumental goals relating to areas such as education or employment.” (Allen et al., 2008) Thus, it has been determined that the general philosophy with which mentoring programs are founded and approached is relevant in determining its success rate.

In analyzing these philosophies, it is also relevant to explore philosophies as such that have led to failing programs. In an analysis of the educational impact of a mentoring program at Wesleyan University, several of these less effective program philosophies were exhumed. In their mission, the NEAT program states that, “The North End Action Team (NEAT) is a community-based organization whose mission is to empower residents and stakeholders to participate in and advocate for the interests of the North End neighborhood within Middletown, Connecticut.” (NEAT, 2017) This program’s philosophy does not fall under the two aforementioned categories that the University of Missouri qualified as “effective,” and thus might explain the reasons why its mentors felt dissatisfied in its effectiveness.

Beyond the content of the program and the services provided to the individuals involved, the structure and methods by which the program and its services are provided fall into the aforementioned “practices.” Among them, the methods by which mentors and mentees are recruited, the timing and frequency of mentoring sessions, the setting in which mentoring takes place, and the time allocation within mentoring sessions are relevant.

Assessing Effectiveness

Though these factors can be objectively observed and disentangled, the capacity to subjectively evaluate them is limited for several reasons. In the study conducted by the University of Missouri, the team pointed to to the difficulties involved with the “Assessment of Outcomes.” They state that, “the type of data source or informant utilized as well as the timing of outcomes assessment relative to the active period of program operation,” affect the already difficult process of evaluating the outcomes of varying “patterns of interaction’ from program to program.

Having addressed these challenges in assessing effectiveness in mentoring programs overall, in addition to “best practices,” we will outline four factors that will define the way in which this report identifies an effective mentoring program. They will be: consistency, goal-oriented philosophies, mentoring relationship strength, and purpose-driven program structures.

JZAMP within the context of mentoring programs overall:

JZAMP employs many of the aforementioned theory and empirically based best practices as well as strong relationships between mentors and youths to ensure a successful mentorship program, improving academic and social outcomes for the students involved.  The aspects of the program fall under the categories defined for assessing program effectiveness: consistency, goal oriented philosophies, mentoring relationship strength and purpose driven program structure.  For the purposes of this report, we will focus on the particular JZAMP site of Wexler-Grant Community School in New Haven, CT and its partner university, Yale.

Goal Oriented Philosophy:

JZAMP was created in 2000 when then Connecticut State Representative Reginald Jones partnered with fellow school board member John Zimmerman with the aim of combatting school drop-out rates. This goal oriented philosophy is the foundation upon which the other effective strategies the program employs are built. To combat school drop out rates, JZAMP seeks students who are below grade level proficiency in reading and math; the students are selected based on recommendations from their fifth grade teachers and results of standardized tests administered by the state of Connecticut. The tests determine the baseline of the students proficiency in math and reading and the teachers recommend students who are highly motivated to do better in these areas.

With this benchmark goal of increasing proficiency in reading and math to combat the risk of dropping out firmly in place, mentors can build  proficiency throughout the three years by setting smaller quarterly and semester goals of achievement for their mentees.  Concrete goal setting is important for both mentors and mentees because “seeing oneself gain progressive mastery strengthens personal efficacy, fosters efficient thinking and enhances performance attainments” (Bandura, 1993). This self efficacy in combination with goal setting contributes to academic attainments (Zimmerman, Bandura, Martinez-Pons, 1992).

Students gain confidence by meeting goals they set in conjunction with, and with the support of, their mentor and improve academically. Examples of smaller goals set by some mentors and their mentees range from general improvement of grades, to speed and accuracy with which students complete specific types of math and reading problems in homework, to increasing the amount of time spent focused on work during academic time. Setting and reaching these goals allow both the mentor and mentee to gauge their academic progress over time .

Consistency:

This goal oriented philosophy is reinforced by the consistency of the program, another area in which JZAMP maintains mentoring effectiveness.  Consistency is manifested both in the duration of the mentoring cycle as well as the frequency with which mentors and mentees work together.  Both mentors and mentees are recruited to JZAMP knowing that the program lasts for a full three years.  College students apply to mentor with the program at the end of their freshman year and are selected on the basis of their experience with tutoring and mentorship as well as their willingness to commit to the full three years of the program. During these three years, mentors and mentees meet twice a week for the duration of the school year–barring school holidays.  This year to year, week to week, and day to day consistency is crucial to the achievement of the aforementioned academic goals because mentorship has been shown to increase in effectiveness over time (Grossman and Rhodes, 2002). Grossman and Rhodes found in a 2002 study that the benefits of a mentoring relationship are best achieved if the relationship lasts at least one year (Grossman and Rhodes, 2002). JZAMP’s three year duration ensures that not only the minimal benefits of a mentoring relationship can be achieved, but that they can be maximized over an even longer period of time.

Mentor Relationship Strength:

Strong mentor-mentee relationships that are also core to the success of the program.  Herrera, Sipe and McClanahan identify eight characteristics that contribute to a strong mentoring relationship: mentor and mentee engagement in social activities; mentor and mentee engagement in academic activities; hours per month mentee and mentor spend together; decisions made about how mentors and mentees spend time; similarity of interests; prematch orientation and training; post match support and training from program staff; and age of the mentee (Herrera, Sipe, McClanahan, 2000). JZAMP builds mentor-mentee relationship strength along each of these eight metrics. The strong mentoring relationships of JZAMP are due in part to the duration of the program and the frequency with which mentors and mentees interact, discussed in the consistency section above. Engagement in social activities, academic activities, time management decisions, training, matching and support each fall under the category of purposeful program structure which will be discussed in the following section.

The mentor-mentee relationship is also strengthened by pairing mentees with mentors in a ratio no higher than 2:1. Because the mentor’s time is not split between many parties, the mentees receive more focused academic and social attention from their mentors. This focused attention allows mentors to tailor the time spent with their mentee or mentees to maximise effectiveness. In practice, this takes the form of concentrating on academic areas of weakness specific to the mentee or mentees;  pushing the mentee or mentees to move at a specific pace; or spending focused social time getting to know mentees on a personal level.

Purpose Driven Program Structure:

The effectiveness of JZAMP is also owed to the structure of the program, both at its higher programmatic level and in the day to day structure at the schools, for this section we will examine Wexler-Grant School in New Haven and its partner university, Yale, as a case study.

JZAMP at Yale is administered through the university’s undergraduate student lead community service organization, Dwight Hall.  Dwight Hall appoints a site director that acts as a liaison between the university and the foundation that supplies the funding for the program. Day to day operations of the program at the local middle school are administered by the student director appointed by the site director at Dwight Hall. This separation of overall programmatic administration from day to day operations at the school relieves the administrative burden on both parties, allowing for efficient running of the program.   The two act in conjunction, trading information and reinforcing each others roles to maximize program effectiveness.

The Dwight Hall site director acts as support for the program, providing training and resources to the student director and mentors. The site director oversees the program’s budget, accounting for mentor pay, funding for supplies and field trips. The director also oversees the period of onboarding and training each each year for the mentors during which data from the previous year are assessed and improvements and adjustments are made to ensure a better experience for mentees.

The student director acts as on the ground support for the mentors–interacting with school administration and teachers to smooth the day to day operations of the program. The student director acts as a resource for the mentors on site, facilitating communication with teachers about mentee progress and keeping the school administration abreast of program activities.

A day of JZAMP at Wexler-Grant is as follows:

2:00- Mentors arrive before the end of the school day and prepare by bringing JZAMP materials to the classroom used for the program.  Mentors arrive with any specific materials needed for that days activities and bring the materials left at the school to our mentoring site.  

2:10- School day ends and mentors usher their mentees to the classroom and wait until everyone has arrived.

2:20-2:40- Mentors and students go to the gym or outside if the weather permits to decompress after the school day and relax before resuming academic activities. This is a period during which mentors and mentees can interact in a more casual and social setting.  Mentors and mentees may play a game of basketball or tag, or sit and exchange stories about their days or engage in a discussion about current events. This is a time during which mentor and mentee relationships can be strengthened in a social setting.

2:40-3:00- Mentors and Mentees return to classroom for snacks, announcements and prepare for academic time.  During this period, the student director may make announcements about upcoming field trips or group activities. Students also have the opportunity to share about their lives in a larger group setting through “Rose, bud, thorn” an activity in which students share something good that happened, something they’re looking forward to, and something negative that has recently happened. During this time, mentors may poll the crowd about upcoming school assignments that mentees can work on.

3:00-4:00- Mentors work with mentees on homework and projects, or tutor to reinforce areas of academic weakness. During this time, mentors and their mentees break off into their assigned matches and work on whatever mentor and mentee agree should be done that day.  Mentors and mentees may employ goal setting by setting daily goals such as finishing x number of assignments or getting to a certain point in a larger homework packet assigned for the week. With both parties aware of  the daily goal, mentors can chart a pace for their mentees and provide support needed to succeed for the day. Shared goal setting and small group or one on one pairing lends the interaction a collaborative feel rather than a teacher-pupil hierarchy that strengthens mentor and mentee bonds.

4:00-4:30-Mentors lead a session of academic enrichment, the theme of which changes weekly, giving each mentor a chance to elect the theme of the week. Academic enrichment themes can include but are not limited to political debate, historical discussion, and recent scientific discoveries. This time is intended to encourage students to engage in intellectual pursuit outside of work assigned in school.  This time is opened with an introduction and transitions to an activity related to the topic, with the second day of mentoring building upon the first.

4:30-5:00 Mentors and mentees return to the gym or outside until transportation arrives to take students home.

This schedule is strictly followed each day of mentoring and ensures that mentees are getting the most out of their time with their mentors, both academically and socially.

These elements of consistency, goal oriented philosophy,mentoring relationship strength and purpose driven program structure have proven effective in improving academic outcomes for JZAMP mentees.  JZAMP has achieved its goal of combatting drop out rates. JZAMP’s first cohort graduated high school in 2008 and JZAMP participants had a graduation rate of 85% (JZAMP, 2016), higher than the state average of 79.2% (Lohman, 2011) for that year. JZAMP mentees at Wexler-Grant outperform their school peers in both school assessments and standardized testing; two JZAMP mentees scored the highest in the schools administration of the PSAT 8/9 test.

TFA Within the Context of Training and Disseminating Universal Practices

This report has already established the fundamental differences between TFA and mentoring programs like J-Z AMP. It has indicated that the TFA model will be used in order to extrapolate methods by which mentoring “best practices” could be universally employed and applied. In this section, we will more concretely evaluate what elements of the TFA model would be most effectively applied to a “Mentor for America” model. This section will briefly elaborate on concrete elements of these practices to be implemented.

Broad Scope

Teach for America is both applauded and criticized for its broad recruiting efforts. More specifically, Teach for America seeks to encourage a diverse range of college students– regardless of their background or academic interests– in order to pull from a significant pool that selects for competitive applicants. At the point in which it most invested in recruiting, around 2013, Teach for America, “attracted 57,000 applicants, yielding a corps that year of 5,800 teachers.” (Washington Post, 2016)

This data begs questions pertaining to the reach with which Teach for America recruits. Critics argue that because of its mission to recruit in high numbers, Teach for America focuses marketing on people who are not necessarily interested in education, affecting TFA’s retention rate. (Donaldson, Johnson, 2011) These critics might cite the fact that more than two thirds of TFA teachers leave their positions at public schools beyond their two-year commitment. (Donaldson, Johnson) However, this data is limited given its framing. Though two thirds of TFA teachers leave their positions after their two year commitment, almost 90% of them remain in their positions during the first two years. We will now briefly explore this paradox, arguing that it is okay that a majority of teachers leave after their two year commitment given the leverage that this provides TFA in its recruiting efforts.

In analyzing this data, it is relevant to further explore the methods by which TFA goes about recruiting at this scope. One of the main marketing efforts that TFA employs in this effort is its emphasis on “exit options.” By “exit options,” we refer to the cues that it provides potential corps members pertaining to ways in which TFA will expand, rather than stunt, their future alternative career options. On one of its alternating website tiles, TFA emphasizes that corps members will, “join an extraordinary, diverse network 53,000 strong tackling inequity from every sector.” (TFA, 2017)

TFA asserts to its potential corps members that TFA will not lock them into a career path in teaching, using the fact that they can leave after two years as a selling point. Through we have explored the reasons why critics find this problematic, this report will argue that this framing and emphasis is beneficial.

This method is practical and beneficial for several reasons. Given that it targets people beyond those seeking to enter an education track, it increases its numbers substantially. TFA does this knowing that there is a teacher shortage, and that finding people that are good teachers, and who can fill the gaps in today’s teacher deficit, requires a broad selection method. This type of recruiting emphasizes the fact that effective teachers come in many different “shapes and sizes,” and that it is in many bests interests to welcome and acquire a diverse pool of teachers. By embracing the fact that their goal is not to commit teachers for a lifetime of teaching, TFA maximizes its ability to recruit a pool of diverse and effective teachers.

Establishing Commitment & Constant Contact

Recruiting a high number and wide variety of corps members does not cause Teach for America to compromise in its high expectations for corps members. From the beginning of its recruiting path for corps members, it ensures commitment through a high-level investment threshold on the part of the potential new corps member.

In practice, this means that Teach for America develops a constant feedback relationship with its corps members, establishing a level of commitment that goes beyond average onboarding practices.

From its application process, TFA requires new corps members to dedicate time to submitting personal statements, answering purpose questionnaires, and complete activities that require upwards of five hours. (TFA, 2017) After the application process, TFA requires all potential new corps members to conduct a day-long in-person interview that is tiered to challenge the applicant’s individual and collaborative background, goals, and intentions. (Glassdoor, 2016)

Once corps members are hired, the methods by which they are prepared to teach in classrooms vary from region to region. In TFA’s New York Region, for example, new corps members are required to attend multiple preparation webinars, upload videos pertaining to their intentions and goals, and participate in a busy “grooming” process where they are prepared for the licensing process and placement. (Teacher Certification Degrees, 2017)

In analyzing this process, it is relevant to extrapolate the broad factors of consistency, commitment, and contact. Teach for America ensures teacher commitment— amounting at the previously cited 90% retention rate during the two-year placement– through creating a process of substantial investment on behalf of its new teachers.

Self-Evaluative Tools

Teach for America is capable of holding its large pool of new corps mentors universally accountable through its methods of self-reflection and evaluation. More tangibly speaking, TFA’s “Teaching As Leadership Comprehensive Rubric” is a model of the ways in which TFA requires and perpetuates the importance and magnitude of this process. (Teaching as Leadership, 2017) This rubric provides new corps members with the framework from which to set goals that are tangible and tiered; they seek to assure that new teachers constantly improve themselves through self-evaluation and incrementally higher goals.

The “Self-Evaluative Tools” element of Teach for America’s  “universal practices” is perhaps one of the most worthy of extrapolation and ubiquitous implementation. This is due to the fact that it ensures constant increased output from each of its new teachers and staff members, thus generating optimal results for children in classrooms.

Combining the Two: Scalability of Good Mentoring

Implementation

This report has extrapolated “best practices” from J-Z AMP, mentoring programs at large, and Teach for America in order to consider the ways in which the United States could improve statistics that currently demonstrate the ineffective nature of youth mentoring programs. (Aben et al., 2006) This section will explore how these aspects can be tangibly combined in order to improve mentoring programs nationwide.

In implementing a program with such goals and practices, we propose a large-scale, centralized mentoring institution that recruits, trains, and places mentors in localized regions. These regions are broken down into campuses and schools of contact. However, the process of creating such a hierarchy allows for the “universal best practices” implemented by TFA to be disseminated throughout the United States.

Mentor for America will recruit, train, and place college-aged mentors within partner schools throughout the country, seeking to universalize the effective strategies and structures utilized in JZ AMP. It will use universities, as does TFA, as the centers in which these actors are prepared to effectively mentor in schools. The ultimate goal of this organization will be to implement the best practices of JZ AMP and TFA to universalize good mentoring throughout the United States, and change the status quo of mixed successes in the variety of programs that currently exist in the country.

Potential Problems

The implementation of the expansion of JZAMP following the TFA scalability model is not without  potential problems.  Scaling any program, despite its effectiveness and organization at the micro level, will have its problematic areas at the macro level.

The first potential problematic area may arise in funding the program. JZAMP is funded through a grant from the Jones-Zimmerman Foundation to pay for all costs associated with the program. Securing adequate funding to run the program on a larger scale may be difficult.  This could be mitigated by addressing the need for funding through each university’s Dwight Hall equivalent.

The existence of a Dwight Hall like entity within each university is also unlikely and may cause problems in implementation. Embedding JZAMP at Dwight Hall aids in the smooth running of the program, but may not be necessary.  There would have to me extensive structure building at the new universities to accommodate a program of this type.  

Conclusion

Existing literature pertaining to mentoring programs in the United States shows mixed results with regard to their effectiveness. At this point, the benefits of mentoring programs are not concretely defined or discernable, and many studies point to net losses. This report identified one of the reasons for these existing results: given an absence of ubiquitous best practices, mentoring programs fall on a broad spectrum of general success.

Due to the broad range of mentoring programs and corresponding success rates in the United States, this report has considered the ways in which uniting best practices pertaining to mentoring, and those pertaining to running an effective, nation-wide educational program (TFA), might increase success rates of mentoring programs around the country.

From a proscriptive standpoint, this report has suggested the implementation of a mentoring-based program modeled after the best practices of Teach for America’s recruiting, training, and placement practices and JZ AMP mentoring techniques called Mentor for America.

Moving forward, there is room to consider the practical elements of implementing a program such as Mentor for America. More specifically, it will be relevant to consider financing, fundraising, staffing, leadership hierarchies, and distribution channels. Though these factors have not been examined at this point, the theoretical evidence of the need and projected success rate of such a program has been established in this report.

 

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