Across the state, numbers fall

Sometimes it takes a little guidance to keep a kid from becoming a statistic.

There are more than 50,000 students in Delaware schools whose family or economic situations may not offer the guidance they need to flourish academically and socially.

Having community-minded people come in to mentor these students is one way of helping them find greater success during their time in the classroom, noted Lawanda Burgoyne, who coordinates mentoring in the Capital School District.

“Research has shown over and over and over the most important resilience factor for a student at risk for any reason is having a solid relationship with an adult,” she said. “Mentoring allows them to form a consistent relationship the student might not have otherwise.”

Tamara Toles Torain, who oversees the mentoring program in the Caesar Rodney district, feels mentors are a special gift.
“A mentor is someone they can sit, talk with and just be themselves,” she said.

Burgoyne and Toles Torain feel their schools, like others throughout Delaware, have found great value in mentoring, but a lack of new mentors is hampering the program.

Three years ago, Capital had almost 400 mentors, Burgoyne said. But that has shrunk through attrition to 120, a drop of 70 percent.

Caesar Rodney has 47 students in need of mentoring, but only 44 volunteers.

Although teachers and counselors sometimes can fulfill the mentor’s role, other duties may not leave enough time to do the job or to recruit new mentors, Burgoyne said.

“We just don’t have the capability to go out and pound the pavement looking for mentors to come in,” she said.

A thousand different reasons

Mentoring, however, is not designed just to help students bring up their grades, although that often is one result, Jen Marek, mentoring director for Connecting Generations in Wilmington, said. Connecting Generations runs Creative Mentoring in 97 schools in all three counties, setting up training for mentors and helping schools establish and run their own programs.

The program operates on the belief that a personal, one-on-one relationship with a caring adult can foster self-esteem, interpersonal communication skills, self-confidence and social skills. All can lead to better academic performance, Marek said.

“It’s important to have someone a child can talk to,” she said. “Maybe they’re shy, or come from a single-parent home. There are students whose parent may be incarcerated or deployed, if they’re military. There are a thousand different reasons.”

But despite the more than 1,500 active mentors, there always is a shortage.

“I could call a school tomorrow and off the top of their heads they’d say they have 10 to 20 students who need a mentor,” Marek said.

I’m there to listen

Elaine Starkey is one of Capital’s mentors; she’s been with Rosetta, a junior at Dover High School, for 11 years.

“Early in my career, I worked in Rochester, N.Y., and decided to give mentoring a try and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Starkey said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to give back to my community but honestly I get back as much as I give.”

She and Rosetta spend their time working on crafts, helping with homework, doing college research or simply talking, Starkey said.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that mentoring is a two-way street,” she said. “I’m there to listen and to offer advice. What I get in return is a different perspective and insight into her world. This has allowed our relationship to grow into something meaningful for the both of us.”

Noting Rosetta displayed a passion for wanting to help others, Starkey encouraged her to take part in a number of community service projects. As a result, Rosetta has received the Jefferson Award. Delaware Today magazine noted her as one of the state’s outstanding young women.

“Hopefully I’ve helped Rosetta develop self-esteem and self-confidence,” Starkey said. “She is an exceptional young lady and I am so excited for her future.”

Consistency and stability

Becoming a mentor takes about an hour a week and a desire to make a difference, Marek said.

All applicants undergo a criminal history background check completed by the Delaware State Bureau of Investigation and the tuberculosis screening required of all school volunteers.

Once accepted, prospective mentors attend a three-hour training session and apply to work in a particular school.

“We work to match the mentor’s availability with the school schedule,” Marek said.

“Typically people don’t have a strong preference for the school they go to. We’re not going to turn away mentors, I can tell you that.”

Mentors do their volunteer work during the school day in tune with a student’s schedule so as to not take away from core classroom time.

Although there’s no age requirement -- high school students have mentored younger students and university students have helped those in high school -- most mentors are middle age. The majority in Sussex schools are retired, Marek said, with a lesser number in Kent and New Castle.

New mentors make a commitment to at least one school year, a requirement that helps provide a child with consistency and stability.

“Some people will start with a student in elementary school and follow them all the way through high school,” she said. Others will limit their work to a particular grade level, Marek added.

Mentoring gives students a positive experience that can affect a student at many levels, giving them the knowledge that whatever problems they’re facing, they can share that with someone willing to help.

“As an added benefit, the value of having a mentor is seen by student when they reach adulthood,” Toles Torain said. “At that stage a district’s goal is for our students to then see mentoring as a necessary resource to reach the personal and professional aspirations they have for themselves.”