Student mentors play positive role for pupils

22 Francis Scott Key seniors work one-on-one in area schools


For seventh-grader Jacquelynne Smith, having a mentor has been a lot like having a best friend, a teacher and a homework helper rolled into one.

Since she joined a mentoring program that pairs seniors at Francis Scott Key High with children at area middle and elementary schools, Jacquelynne said her grades have steadily improved - from all F's to B's and C's at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown. She said she's happier about school, and she proudly acknowledges being a lot easier to get along with.

She credits time spent with her mentor, Jessica Penn, for the positive shift in her attitude. "She has helped me stopped fighting," Jacquelynne said with a smile during a recent visit with her mentor. "She was a hothead in school, and she talks to me about how she learned that you don't find answers in fighting."

Jessica - who spends about 15 hours a week mentoring three girls at Northwest Middle and two girls at New Windsor Middle - said she knew that being honest and straightforward with Jacquelynne would help establish a stronger relationship.

"If I came in here and pretended like I had the best middle school life, she wouldn't respond as well," Jessica said. "If I couldn't relate to her, then she couldn't relate to me."

Jacquelynne said she realized much of her misbehavior was the result of feeling frustrated because she was struggling with math and other classes.

"When I used to do my homework, I couldn't understand it; I would get it all wrong," said Jacquelynne, who had a different mentor last school year. "But my mentors helped me understand, and it made me feel smarter."

The mentoring program was developed three years ago with funding from a federal Character Education grant. Seniors at Francis Scott Key are paired with pupils at schools in the northwest region of the county - New Windsor Middle, Northwest Middle, Elmer Wolfe Elementary, Runnymede Elementary and Taneytown Elementary.

Through the program, the high school students spend at least one mod - a 90-minute segment of their school day - working with children who are identified as struggling behaviorally, academically or socially. The mentors earn a half-credit for each quarter they are signed up for the program. They also earn community service credit hours toward their graduation requirements.

Since the program's inception, more than 70 seniors have been paired with about 95 children at the elementary and middle schools, said Mary Lynne Ziegler, a parent-community liaison who coordinates the program.

The mentors have racked up more than 4,600 service hours, she estimated.

This year, 22 Francis Scott Key seniors are mentors.

They often have breakfast or lunch with the pupils, spend time shadowing them in classes such as math or social studies, offer one-on-one tutoring and talk about whatever is on their minds. They meet with the pupils anywhere from two to three times a week to every school day.

Jessica said she used a variety of strategies to help Jacquelynne better understand math. To help her visualize the meaning of rotation, Jessica had Jacquelynne stand in place while Jessica walked in a circle around her to demonstrate the mathematical concept.

"I didn't realize that one point stays still, and the others move," Jacquelynne said. "I was confused and then I started getting stuff explained, and then it started to stick."

Now, Jacquelynne is considering becoming a peer mediator so she can help other middle schoolers sort out conflicts and share the tips she has picked up from Jessica. And she thinks she'd like to become a lawyer or a judge someday. Because she's bilingual - Spanish was her first language - she also is contemplating a career as a translator.

"Before I got a mentor, I wasn't into planning for the future. I wasn't looking forward to college," said Jacquelynne, who hopes to keep in touch with Jessica.

Dana Falls, the principal at Northwest Middle, said that he has witnessed similar results from other mentoring relationships at the school.

"The more people investing in a child, the better," he said. "Our kids need positive role models. The high school mentors are readily accepted [by the pupils] as a peer, not like an adult."

Falls said the mentors are not expected to act as counselors and are instructed to refer those they mentor to school guidance counselors for more intensive support.

"They're more like big brothers and big sisters," he said.

Ziegler said that while there is no academic criteria that mentors must meet, they are required to have at least a 94 percent attendance rate. Because the younger children look forward to seeing their mentors, it is crucial that the mentors are committed to showing up.

"That one positive relationship can really make a difference," she said.

Ziegler said mentors undergo the school system's volunteer training, learn basic tutoring skills and are familiarized with the social and psychological stages of development. They also are taught how to use incentives to change behavior, she said.

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