LA needs 27,000 mentors to save students

He was a fourth-grade student from a poor, working-class family, whose siblings had not completed high school. She was a high-achieving 11th grader, so discouraged by school that she was about to drop out of her senior year.

The two former students – the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Alberto Caravalho and school board president Jackie Goldberg earned their degrees in large part because of the adults who mentored them. So it only made sense that the city’s top school leaders would consider a similar path for thousands of public school students identified as needing a similar helping hand.

Carvalho, Goldberg and LA Chamber of Commerce leader Maria Salinas unveiled Friday the massive call for mentorship — for some 27,000 students across the district — at an elementary school in Watts. Participating organizations will include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, Fraternity Crusade, Girls Inc. and the Toberman neighborhood center.

Carvalho recalled Miss Natalia, who taught him grades one to four in his native Portugal.

“What she did with me beyond the classroom changed my life,” Carvalho said. “She cared, made a difference. I graduated from high school. My siblings didn’t. Something clicked because someone cared enough.

Goldberg recalled that she simply wanted to take the General Education Development test for a certificate, giving up an opportunity to earn a degree.

But her adviser, David Reiss at Morningside High in Inglewood, didn’t let that happen – and instead found a college program that got her a high school diploma, and from there she went to UC Berkeley and a long career in education and politics.

“Each of these 27,000 children in our community,” Carvalho said, “needs to feel that they are important enough because of the presence of this precious and inspiring adult.”

Carvalho didn’t have a specific dollar estimate for the project, which is called Everyone Mentors LA, but suggested the cost would be minimal compared to the impact – and would rely heavily on community groups and mentors volunteers. LA Unified would serve as a hub: identifying students and paying for background checks on potential mentors.

“In a community of over 5 million, finding 27,000 mentors should be easy,” Carvalho said. “But we can’t do it alone.”

Principal Lashon Sanford mentored fourth-grade student Tinniya Wilson at Compton Avenue Elementary STEAM Academy. Tinniya, who is also receiving tutoring assistance, gave a short speech to the assembled dignitaries and reporters about the benefits of tutoring and garnered a hug from Sanford in the process.

Her tutoring, she said, helps her “overcome challenges, ask questions and gain confidence.”

Officials said the research supports the effectiveness of mentorship, which can involve a surprisingly modest commitment.

“Research recommends one hour per week,” Carvalho said, adding that the district would request that meetings be held on campuses, at least for now. “It is difficult to predict when we will reach 27,000. But we hope that throughout this year we will develop the relationships we need – between this year and the summer – and achieve the desired goal.

LA Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, had a notable misfire with a past attempt at full mentorship.

In August 2014, Supt. John Deasy officially opened the school year by urging, even assigning, all middle and senior staff to a dropout prevention effort. About 1,500 sealed envelopes, each containing a student’s name, were taped under the seats of the newly rebuilt Garfield High auditorium for the superintendent’s annual address.

The names inside were of freshmen who the previous year had been at risk of dropping out, struggling with low attendance, poor discipline, failed classes or low test scores. Some were in foster care; some were learning English; some were students with disabilities.

But many envelopes have not been claimed. Even for the rest, there is no evidence that anything was born out of this dramatic gesture.

Volunteer mentor Jerome Caldwell, a computer technology specialist for a commercial real estate company, said on Friday he started mentoring a boy six years ago.

“He was 9 years old, energetic, and the pairing process was pretty cool, because we both loved sports, the outdoors,” said Caldwell, who is affiliated with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles. “I tried to expose him to a lot of what LA has to offer: football and baseball, going to sporting events and eating out. And I check in with him on how he’s doing in school.”

The Caldwell mentee has a strong family, but even so it’s possible to go down a destructive path, Caldwell said, adding: “I grew up in Oakland, which is a lot like LA. You can easily go into the wrong direction in both cities.”

He hopes the relationship “instills in him that you don’t have to join gangs, you can be yourself, you can be smart”.

The school system has set up a web page where volunteers can register and also connect directly to participating groups.

Los Angeles Times

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