My Turn: Back to school serves as reminder of important role mentors play



Tuesday, October 10, 2017, The Greenfield Recorder

Back to school has a special feeling for nearly everyone I know, especially people who work with children. Here at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County it means tender reunions at our school-based programs, watching high school seniors reconnect with 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds who missed them terribly all summer. It means community Bigs and Littles getting back to routines and regular outings together after school or on weekends. It means making sure we have 30 pumpkins for our most popular Big/Little match activity in October.

And all this autumnal activity revolves around school, particularly the local public-school calendar, as one of the most essential parts of a child’s world. Our job as mentors and as professionals who support mentors, is to foster a safe and secure environment around the edges of school so children can be ready and able to learn. I firmly believe this job isn’t restricted to “official” mentors like our Bigs, or just to teachers and educators, but is the responsibility of every adult that comes into contact with children.

According to the national organization America’s Promise Alliance, “students with support from adults in school are 25 percent less likely to leave school. Students are more likely to attend school every day, achieve academic and social success, and graduate on time when they have meaningful relationships with staff and teachers.” Additionally, America’s Promise’s policy recommendations include the recommendation that educators and policy makers “create evidence-based plans to improve low graduation rate high schools. States and school districts should adopt evidence-based practices, including implementing early warning systems to identify and support students who are off track based on their attendance, behavior, and course performance records, making social and emotional learning a part of the curriculum, and providing students with high-quality postsecondary education and workforce engagement opportunities.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters is an evidence-based model that works right here in Franklin County. We have results. In June, I was excited to “run the numbers” based on the results of the surveys we administer to our matches each year. We do this in part because Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County is a proud United Way of Franklin County Partner Agency under the area of education, and because we also report academic outcomes for the Boston-based Mass Mentoring Partnership. But it is also personally satisfying to see how the hard work of our staff and mentors is solidified in statistical form. And, because I like math, and I like science!

One of our yearly objectives is that our Little Brothers and Sisters will demonstrate improvement in attitude toward school as a result of their relationship with their Big. Our 2017 local surveys revealed that 55 percent of our matched youth showed this improved attitude toward school. We also saw other academic gains: 69 percent showed increased academic performance, 66 percent showed increased classroom participation, 59 percent had improved classroom behavior and 58 percent showed improved school preparedness. Additionally, local matched children show gains in social and emotional learning: 87 percent of matched youth have better self-confidence, 76 percent are better able to express their feelings, 71 percent show improved relationships with peers.

Mentoring works, but it is also cost-effective. A study published by Wilder Research shows that for every dollar invested in effective mentoring programs, like BBBSFC, there is a return of $2.72. That return comes from projected increases in lifetime earnings by giving youth facing adversity in their lives a guiding hand and view to opportunities. It means they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Young people with Bigs are more likely to stay in school, more prepared for the workforce and able to engage in positive social relationships. These mentoring relationships support children and strengthen our communities for very little cost.

Back to school holds more meaning for me, since it is a time to reset the expectations I have for myself as an adult in the world and when I get to witness reconnections between children and mentors — Littles and Bigs who may have been strangers just a year ago. I see delight and adoration in the eyes of a little sister holding her Bigs’ hand as they talk about their summers. I see a big brother and his new Little excited to march in the Franklin County Fair Parade in their matching T-shirts, throwing candy to the parade spectators. I see potential and joy, and I know from the science that it is so much more. Enjoy the new year.

Danielle Letourneau-Therrien is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County.

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