Making a difference one child at a time

My turn

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Thank you for Eric Fry's stories on Juneau's schools and the struggles of administrators, teachers and citizens to come to terms with increasing needs and decreasing funds.

When reading about the number of students with needs, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are being cut and the millions of dollars that are poured into education, it may be easy to think that one person can't make a difference in the system.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters we know this isn't true. In fact, it is our belief that the only thing that can make a difference is one person, giving time and attention, to one child at a time.

In 1999 we launched a new program with a simple philosophy: By visiting a Juneau school and giving a child an hour or so of individual attention a week, adults in Juneau could transform our kids' educational experience. The idea was to create not just a tutoring program focusing on academics, but rather a mentoring program that focused first on friendship because, as our traditional program has shown us, if we can build a child's sense of self-esteem and confidence first, better grades will follow. Adults and kids could choose to focus on reading or math skills, but they also could just enjoy a game, or share lunch if they wanted. Volunteer mentors would be welcome whether they were high school students or retirees, professionals or nonprofessionals. They all have one thing in common: They've made the time, in their lunch breaks or other free time, to commit to a single child.

What can result from this kind of attention? A recent study of school mentoring programs like ours around the country found that:

64 percent of students developed more positive attitudes toward school.

58 percent achieved higher grades in social studies, languages and math.

60 percent improved relationships with adults and 56 percent improved relationships with peers.

64 percent developed higher levels of self-confidence.

62 percent were more likely to trust their teacher.

Here in Juneau, the feedback from volunteers, teachers, parents and students has been extremely positive. One teacher reported, "This has made such a positive impact on (her student's) self-esteem. She now knows she's smart and beautiful, inside and out. (Her mentor) has been a godsend." When asked if he liked spending time with his mentor, a local student exclaimed, "I'm so lucky!"

The community's interest in this program surpassed our grandest hopes. For the 2000-01 school year, we set a formidable (for us) goal of 50 youth matched with a single caring adult volunteer. Thanks to the support of community volunteers and the Juneau School District, we will attain this goal - doubling the number of children served by our agency. In the coming years we intend to expand this program even further.

Our students gain by spending one-to-one time with positive adult role models, our teachers have more time to spend focusing on other students, and our volunteers are able to make a difference by helping kids improve attitudes and behaviors toward school. Most of our mentors tell us they're more energized when they leave the school after meeting their students than when they arrive because they enjoy their get-togethers so much. Finally, the more adults that spend time in our schools, the more our youth see that they're not invisible and that their presence really matters.

It's so easy to believe the problems that plague our schools are difficult and intractable, or that they can only be solved with more money than we have to spend. The School Mentoring Program is showing success is within our reach, and less expensive than we think.

Bill Peters is president of the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Juneau Inc.

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