Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

An education ‘fix’ you can be a part of

One of the most effective ways to ensure that students succeed? Give them mentors.

Alfredo Sosa / The Christian Science Monitor/File
City Year Americorps member Justin Roias talks to his mentee, 6th grader Manny Aponte at the Gilbert Stuart Middle School last June in Providence, R.I. Gilbert Stuart Middle School is part of the pilot stage of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) Success Mentors Initiative, a national campaign to address chronic student absenteeism. Mentors embedded in the schools help track attendance and get to know students' so that barriers to consistent attendance can be addressed.

It often feels as though America has been taken on an education reform merry-go-round, from the bumpy ride of No Child Left Behind to the difficult climb that is Common Core. This has tested our schoolchildren, dizzied our educators, and strained our schools, extending the search for “new” solutions.

But as the Trump Administration, the new Education secretary, and the new Congress look for ways to ensure that our children can succeed in schools and find productive careers, there is already a proven low-cost solution that can work anywhere in America as a supplement to a quality education: Mentoring.

It saves money while enriching lives — and the results can come quickly.

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As the leaders of two national nonprofits, we understand the difficult choices those in the government sector and private sector must make when the needs are many and the dollars are few. Investing in mentoring, though, makes fiscal sense, too. Mentoring helps to minimize the number of negative and costly interventions while providing substantial societal benefits. The investment required of us individually is a bit of time, but the payoff continues for generations.

Though the federal government plays an essential role in educating children, the best solutions often can be found in our own backyards and are best crafted by the people rooted in these communities. Mentoring is one way to wed the conservative ethos of “personal responsibility” with the progressive ethos of a “communal responsibility” – sidelining politics while boosting our children.

Mentors across the country — whether teachers, community volunteers, neighbors or family members — provide support, guidance and nurturing. We open young people's minds and eyes to new opportunities. Mentoring helps us effect change in our communities rather than waiting on legislators to pave the way. And it leads to a shared purpose that is so desperately needed in these divisive times.

The impact of mentoring in America is profound, reflected in research commissioned by Mentor. With a mentor in their lives, at-risk youth are:

  • 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school
  • 55 percent more likely to enroll in college
  • 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using drugs
  • 78 percent more likely to volunteer regularly in their community
  • 81 percent more likely to participate regularly in sports or extracurricular activities

Children who lack mentors have a much tougher road, and adults will become intertwined in their lives – but as dedicated professionals called to intervene during crisis.

These adults are more likely to be truancy officers and trauma specialists, and the focus will be on discipline and crisis management. In many cases, the intervention will be by law enforcement and probation officers. This is not the path anyone would choose for America’s youth.

Support for mentoring in recent years has been strong in the public and private sector, from Capitol Hill to the White House and beyond. President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative aims to help young boys and men of color and has in just two years shown signs of success, including efforts in which mentoring reduced absenteeism. The Rev. Wilson Goode’s faith-based Amachi Program has been in place since 2000, cultivating mentoring for a generation of children with incarcerated parents.

Yet 1 in 3 young people in the US today will grow up without a mentor of any kind outside their family. It’s not a matter of these youth being unloved, or even uncared for.

Instead, they may not have money for enrichment activities, or their parents may work at jobs that don’t allow them to pick up their children from school. These young people may live in a single-parent/guardian household where the love is immense but the hours available are scarce.   

Nor is the need for mentors one framed by geography or segmented by urban vs. rural. Though many children in America’s cities thirst for the involvement of adults in their lives, there is also a substantial need in rural America. All children — whether from families of means or those living paycheck to paycheck — need mentors.

We should all think of mentoring not as a nice-to-have for America’s youth, but a must-have. And the third of young people without this lifelong benefit need you to consider being a mentor or doing what you can to ensure that the children in your life and your community find mentors. With access to the coaching, caring, and concern of an adult, they’re more likely to find a path toward greater things.

Mentoring can change lives and, as a movement, change America.

Dale Erquiaga is president and CEO of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that helps children succeed in school and ultimately graduate. David Shapiro is president and CEO of Mentor, a nonprofit that connects America’s young people with mentors.

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