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Mentors Log On To Help Students Make the Grade

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Take Tati Diaz, a bright, ebullient 12th-grader in the New York high school. Her mentor, Donald DeMan, is a real-estate appraiser in Melbourne, Fla. Mr. DeMan, whom Nellen recruited on the Internet, was eager to help, because he says he's "appalled at the state of education in this country."

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In his first e-mail to Ms. Diaz, he took a tough line: "I can tell by your home pages that you have a good base to build upon, yet you lack the self-discipline and perhaps the confidence needed to do quality work. You may think it doesn't matter but I assure you it does."

"I was so shocked," Diaz says with an indignant smile. "I was like, how dare this man!" But soon the two found common ground. They both have a passion for the "Dune" science-fiction books. He was a finance major in college. She's an accounting major.

DeMan encouraged her to write drafts of her papers. "I told him I didn't like rough drafts," she recounts. "But he told me I had to organize my thoughts. He said I have to be consistent." Soon she began rewriting already complete papers.

Then in one e-mail he wrote: "I liked your composition. Well done!"

"That meant a lot to me," she beams. "I worked hard for that."

When Diaz's English class ended last spring, she and DeMan lost touch. Neither ever knew much about the other. "I came on strong, and ... she improved, that's the important thing," DeMan says.

Targeting key interests

One key to successful mentoring is leveraging a student's interests. Sitting in her office cubicle in Boulder, Colo., Mary Jones got connected to a troubled high-schooler in rural North Carolina.

This Hewlett Packard software engineer and mother of three had a tough task. The student, whose name Ms. Jones prefers not to use, was described by her teacher as shy, not gifted, and afraid of computers. With gentle encouragement and a touch of humor, Jones waded in.

She asked what the girl wanted to do after high school. "Open my own jewelry store," came the reply. It was the perfect opening.

"If you're going into business, you're going to have to know how much to charge, and how much profit you're making," Jones wrote. "Math helps you figure this out."

She also encouraged her to write more clearly, "so when you want to buy gold chains from a business in India, you can write a formal request." Before working with Jones, the girl rarely smiled or talked in class. Now she was the resident expert in computer class - because she could ask her mentor tough questions. Her grades soared - from D's in English and math to A's and B's.

Mentors can also give career advice. Alex Kopperud, a senior at Colony High School in the remote town of Palmer, Alaska, had mulled over a career as a lawyer. "But if I could do what I really wanted, I'd be an outdoor photographer," he wrote his mentor.

"Hey, you don't have to compromise," came the reply from David Neils, a Hewlett Packard employee in Fort Collins, Colo. With Mr. Neils's help, Kopperud is putting his pictures from a trip to Mt. Marcus Baker on the Internet.

Neils also got Kopperud to write to two prominent photographers, Gaylen Rowell and George Weurthner, who agreed to offer advice.

"I was amazed they would sit down with a grubby little Alaskan like me," Kopperud says.

For Neils, that was a great reward: "A student's life is different on the other side of the planet because I took 12 minutes a day."