A Little Responsibility Helps At-Risk Students Take the Lead

Becoming a mentor gives borderline kids new motivation to study and stay in school

'Every morning when I walk over there, I know the kids are waiting for me to help them, and that really makes me feel good," says Roque Padilla, known as Rocky, as he speaks of his role as a tutor.

An eighth-grader at the Kazem school in San Antonio, Rocky spends about an hour each weekday helping younger Spanish-speaking kids at the nearby Oliveros Elementary School learn English. He and the other mentors say they are excited to be chosen for what many kids see as a much-sought-after honor.

Rocky is part of the Valued Youth Program (VYP), based in San Antonio, which identifies at-risk students throughout the United States and enlists them as tutors. Since it began in 1984, focusing on young people with a Hispanic background, VYP has helped some 3,000 such students stay in school.

The premise is simple: Hand lower-achieving kids, like Rocky, the responsibility of helping younger kids having trouble in school, and the resulting chemistry helps both sides. The younger kids do better in school; the tutors gain confidence, self-respect, and responsibility.

In the Oliveros school, for instance, "they've told us the kids have improved in their tests in English," says Rocky. "The kids were very glad and thanked me."

"When I was in fourth grade I had a tutor, too," he adds. "He taught me English when I needed help, and I never forgot that someone was there to do that."

The once-common practice of having older students tutor younger ones has recently experienced a rebirth. "A lot of it is going on today throughout the country," notes Barbara Burch, dean of the school of education and human development at California State University (CSU) at Fresno.

Recently the VYP program, for example, announced it would be expanding into six new areas, bringing the number of schools served to 75 in 17 cities.

For VYP director Maria Robledo Montecel, the reward comes in seeing struggling students start to take hold in school. "Children are not time bombs ready to go off, they are not problems that need fixing," she says.

"Even kids who have been seen as throwaways can be contributing young people - if schools provide a structure for them to do so. The essence of it is giving them responsibility for someone else."

But many classrooms are stuck in old ways of teaching that prevent such peer mentoring, says Professor Burch, who is president of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. "We don't create enough roles for children that value them for who they are."

Mentoring calls for careful planning and a support system, she warns. "I don't think you should just take kids with big-time problems and say, 'Now you're going to help this first-grader.' That would be reckless. But with student mentors, teachers can become orchestrators of creative learning environments."

Michele Brynjulson, a second-grade teacher at the Golden View Elementary School in San Ramon, Calif., heartily agrees. "Here we put students academically and even socially at risk with students who have their own needs," and it greatly helps both sides, she says.

Ms. Brynjulson reports a marked increase in the self-esteem of student tutors. "They just don't have that many opportunities to be the person with information," says Brynjulson. "They tend to be the people who are listeners, who rarely raise their hands." But when they tutor, "they feel looked-up-to," she says, and all kinds of latent abilities emerge.

At CSU, Burch says they have a program called teacher cadets. "These are not academic stars," she says. "They're fifth graders we bring here for a couple of days to teach how to be peer tutors for first and second graders."

The results are heartening, Burch says. "Now some of the fifth-graders are excited when they become tutors because some had teacher cadets years before."

Mary Diez, dean of the school of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee, saw the mentoring system work effectively with at-risk kids. "If you are middle-to-upper-class and have a lot of advantages, when people ask you to talk about something, you find it very easy and you use a lot of language," she says.

But, she adds, studies show that those without such advantages are more likely to answer in monosyllabic tones and reveal very little.

"Once such kids get a chance to help other kids, the psychological communication barrier is gone," she says, and the tutor's abilities emerge.

For VYP student-mentor Vanessa Guerrero, now in her second year of tutoring at-risk kids at Oliveros, part of the challenge lies in motivating her students. "Sometimes they're lazy," she says. "But I promise them that afterward we'll play this little reading game we have. I point and say what's this word, and whoever gets the most words wins."

Vanessa says she wishes she'd had a student mentor. "As mentors, we know how to react with kids," she observes. The bottom line, she says, is that "They learn to respond."

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