Study touts effectiveness of youth mentor program

Big Brothers Big Sisters credited with improving grades, student attitudes

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Juneau volunteers have been making a difference in Juneau classrooms one hour at a time with their school-based mentoring program.

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Now they have a study to prove it.

A national report released last week touted Alaska's largest youth mentoring program as a success in schools. In Juneau, the mentoring program is credited with raising grades and improving attitudes in a district that is working to better both.

"We have a good program for Juneau schools that promises to be a great program," Marc Wheeler, executive director, said.

Results from the study show that the weekly one-hour sessions with mentors improve student attendance rates and academic interests, and make them feel smarter. At the same time, students fight less, skip school less and visit the principle's office less.

"It's one more asset to help students succeed," Superintendent Peggy Cowan said.

Myrna Sharclane's 11-year-old grandson found his mentor at the Gastineau Elementary School in the spring of 2005. Back then, Sharclane said, her grandson had a tough time focusing and was terribly shy at school.

Going into the 2007-08 school year, Sharclane said, "Teachers say that he is more comfortable, raises his hand and has a more cheerful attitude."

"If we do a good job, there will be a lasting effect," Wheeler said.

The mentoring program started at Harbor View Elementary in 1999 as a "reading buddies" program before growing into the "friendship-based" program it is today, Wheeler said.

Throughout Southeast Alaska, the mentor program served 292 school children last year.

Every elementary school in Juneau has "bigs" and "littles" matched up and building friendships. Harbor View hosts the most matches with 49 "bigs" mentoring "littles" throughout their building.

Local data collected during the 2005-06 school year showed more than 70 percent of the "littles" enrolled had better attitudes about school. Classroom behavior improved by more than 50 percent.

Though it's not a tutor program, teachers are impressed with attitude improvements and the achievement that comes with it, Cowan said.

Volunteers who apply with BBBS are matched with registered students for one-hour in-school sessions each week. Through individual effort and partnerships with 11 Juneau businesses, BBBS had 96 active matches last school year.

With the focus on friendship rather than school, the goal is to give students a friend that focuses solely on them. What the "bigs" and "littles" do is largely up to the student, Wheeler said.

"We read," Rebecca Freer said.

Freer is a 17-year-old Juneau-Douglas High School student that joined the mentoring program as a "big" last year. Juneau's chapter has 31 high school-aged "bigs" working with students at three elementary schools.

Freer's "little" attends Riverbend Elementary School and prefers to read chapter books together during their meetings.

"He's really into it," Freer said. "He can read upside down."

The national study looked at mentoring matches for 15 months before concluding gains were made in science and English, and students finished more homework and had better behavior.

Patty Sanford started worked with her "little" when the girl was in first grade. Six years later, her "little" is no longer "quiet or shy."

"It took a couple of years to get her going," Sanford said.

The pair mostly played games involving math and eventually geography. "We always played learning games," Sanford said.

Sanford's relationship with the girl is considered a long one in the program. The average match in Juneau lasts 12 months.

"That's higher than the national average of nine months," Wheeler said.

The only negative outcome from the study shows student improvements falling off in the third semester of the study period. BBBS believes that shows the result of matches not continuing through the summer months.

With that knowledge, Wheeler said he will look for new "bigs" to make year-long commitments with some contact over the summer.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or

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