Every Monday, just before lunch, Nina Charney escapes the shrill telephones at the office and heads back to junior high school.
She and 29 other members of Team Fleet, the Boston bank's volunteer corps, spend their lunch hour with East Boston Catholic Central's eighth-graders, going over homework and tests, talking, and simply being there.
"Kids understand expectations," says Ms. Charney, sitting at a round, kid-sized library table with Nilisha Mohammed, a bubbly young teen. "If they believe they can do something, I really believe they will. It can be a simple matter of showing them what else is out there."
The program that brings Charney and Nilisha together is sponsored by Mentoring USA, an early intervention program designed to help middle school kids by improving their self-esteem, broadening their vision of opportunities, and encouraging them to succeed.
In a quiet but significant shift in policy, mentoring programs like Fleet's have become an integral part of education reform in the last few years, as educators and communities across America have focused on partnerships with corporations and community as the key to improving education.
"There's been a recognition by [Education] Secretary [Richard] Riley that schools can't do it alone," says Margarita Colmenares of the US Department of Education (DOE). "Improving education requires the whole community."
With more children in single-parent families or living below the poverty line, advocates say the presence of an interested and concerned adult can help kids maneuver the shoals of drug use, truancy, and gang membership, and achieve.
"Twenty years ago everybody had a number of mentors," says Thomas Evans, author of "Mentors: Making a Difference in Our Public Schools." "But middle America has changed, teachers and coaches are overloaded, the need is so much more."
Partnerships between schools and corporations have existed since the 1800s. Recently , however, they have evolved from arrangements based on disinterested financial support to greater engagement, says the DOE's Ms. Colmenares. "What's different is that they're trying to find ways to support academic reform and accountability," she says.
Government attitudes have changed as well, says Daniel Merenda, president of the National Association of Partners in Education. "Partnerships have been very much a bipartisan strategy," he says. "It began with the Reagan administration ... but the thing Clinton has done is rather than create more programs, he's woven requirements for partnerships into education legislation."
Secretary Riley launched the DOE's campaign, "America Goes Back to School: Get Involved," in September 1996, drawing the involvement of major companies like General Electric and United Airlines.
The mentoring concept has been embraced at lower levels of government as well. New York Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew has actively courted partnerships for the country's largest school system, where 67 firms are now linked to 46 high schools.
In California, Governor Pete Wilson has pledged $20.6 million in next year's budget for the California Mentor Initiative, a program he initiated that aims to find mentors, inside and outside the corporate world, for 1 million school children by 2000.
"All the anecdotal evidence points to expanding numbers of people getting into partnerships," says Mr. Merenda, whose group conducted a 1990 survey showing that 51 percent of US school districts were involved in partnerships run by 2.6 million volunteers.
The numbers are likely to rise even further, as the idea is catching on outside government as well. The long-established youth group Junior Achievement has shifted its emphasis from business-related programs to mentoring and reaches 50,000 children in the Midwest alone.
Mentoring USA has expanded rapidly in the Northeast since its start in 1995.
"Response has been phenomenal," says founder Matilda Cuomo, wife of the former governor of New York state, who has advised Governor Wilson on his program. "It only proves the need - single parents, people getting off welfare, even working parents find it hard to give their kids a full qualitative 15 minutes."
Companies have responded enthusiastically to the call for mentors, giving employees the time to visit schools or have students come to the workplace.
"They see the benefit of educating the next generation of customers," says Philip Russo of the New York City Board of Education. "And of educating a work force they plan to draw from."
Managers say there are more immediate payoffs. "Kaplan benefits from the morale boost employees get from being involved [in New York's mentoring program]," says president Jonathon Grayer.
But mentoring is not trouble-free. Educators warn that training and support are essential, as is a structure to deal with inevitable interpersonal problems. Others warn that success can be difficult to achieve unless teachers and mentors establish trust and understanding.
"[They] can really reduce each other's effect," warns Harvard education professor Michael Nakkula, who, like many involved in mentoring, uses words like "dramatic," and "spectacular" to describe the successes.
At East Boston Catholic Central, success is measured in smaller terms. "In social science, she helps me study for the tests and I do better," Nilisha says of Ms. Charney. "And in the last one, I got 'em all right!"