In early 2016, a few dozen Durham, N.C., students lobbied their local school board to hire additional school counselors. The students went so far as to create a cost analysis, which estimated the cost of three additional counselors to be between $150,000 and $225,000 per year.
While it may seem like a big ask, the importance of receiving guidance from a school counselor or trusted mentor in the eyes of the students couldn’t be clearer. While pleading with the school district, one student was quoted by the Herald-Sun newspaper saying that improving counseling services “helps everyone, from the senior trying to maximize their chance of getting into college, to the freshman that’s going to give up and drop out if no one is there to encourage them to work hard for a better future.”
The impact of adult mentors outside of the traditional family unit is a topic gaining traction in education circles as research confirms that these relationships play an important role in guiding high school students on a course toward a successful post-secondary life.
Positive adult role models that are not related to a child but are willing to offer some kind of support are building blocks for healthy development, according to America’s Promise Alliance, a youth advocacy organization. For young people who experience environmental risk factors such as poverty or abuse, mentoring has been particularly effective in recent years as it helps to combat high school dropout rates.
“Over the years, when I’ve spoken with adults who survived years of severe abuse and trauma, they would describe people not associated with a formal agency system as lifelines that made all the difference in their survival,” Bernard Bluhm, professor of Human Services at New England College, said. “School counselors, human service workers, and others working in an official capacity are incredibly important, but their resources are often limited.”
Mentors Intervening at the Right Time
Mentor relationships have been shown to improve the self-esteem, behavior and academic performance of a mentored person. This is important, particularly among teen students experiencing adverse life events such as moving, becoming parents, being homeless, suffering from mental health issues, losing family members or friends, and academic factors such as being suspended or not feeling prepared for school.
All of these circumstances are detrimental to the possibility that a student graduates. According to a study, “GradNation,” more than 50% of students who leave school without a high school diploma face five or more adverse life events between the ages of 14 and 18. Each additional negative experience increases the odds of dropping out by 20%.
This is where a non-family adult mentor can step in to help a student re-engage with school. Of the nearly 1,200 survey respondents in the GradNation study who did not graduate on time, the most common response when asked why they returned to school was that someone encouraged them to do so.
The report concluded with a few other findings. Among them, young people are more likely to graduate when they have access to one stable, trusted person – such as a mentor – that serves as a gateway to a web of support. Whether it’s simply getting kids to school on time or making sure they have nutritious meals to get through the day, mentors are tremendous forces for student engagement.
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The Need for More Mentors
Formal mentorship is supported by the federal government through agencies such as the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which in 2015 granted $90 million to mentoring organizations that serve young people across the nation. While that is a hefty amount of money, it still falls short of what is needed, according to David Shapiro, CEO of The National Mentoring Partnership. Additional funding from private companies and philanthropic organizations is still being sought.
There is another problem hampering the progress of mentoring programs: implementation.
Among education experts, emphasis is now being placed on having a higher number of mentors for young people rather than relying on a single “hero” to help kids. According to research from the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, high school counselors around the nation are currently overwhelmed, with an average of 1.69 counselors per high school nationally, the average enrollment at which was 489 students.
The study looked at the effect of additional counselors and found that placing just one more counselor in a high school increases the number of students who enroll at a four-year college by approximately 10 percentage points.
Outside of school, mentoring programs are having trouble maintaining their resources as well. A report from the Smaller Learning Communities Program, “Implementing Effective Youth Mentoring Relationships for High School Students,” outlined some of the most common obstacles facing mentoring programs.
Insufficient resources and infrastructure, a lack of support, unrealistic expectations and a limited understanding of best practices for mentors were highlighted as the most common obstacles for mentoring programs, whether they are community or school-based.
“Trained mentors, such as Big Brother/Big Sister volunteers, Girls’ Inc. staff and other community-based volunteers can help to provide those ‘lifeline’ resources for children in trouble,” Bluhm said. “Limited funds for the coordinators and trainers of the mentors is a big challenge for these programs. As federal, state and community funds for social programs continue to be squeezed, these important mentor programs are beginning to struggle.”
Human services professionals looking to optimize mentoring programs have a lot of factors to consider, though few will play a bigger role in the viability of a program than the budget and the most valuable resource of all, the mentors themselves, who usually volunteer their time. Given these facts, those managing a mentor program need to create a recruitment strategy and a realistic budget with a sustainability plan.
While school-based mentorship programs are slightly more cost effective than community-based efforts, they run into a problem when budget cuts occur because school counselors are among the first staff to be laid off, according to the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center. That trend, however, may change if school boards begin listening to educators and the students themselves in some cases.