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updated: 7/1/2013 11:34 AM

U-46 aims to mentor its most vulnerable students

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  • Ron Raglin, U-46 chief of equity and social justice, has been developing a new mentor initiative for the district since he started last fall. The research-based program teaches mentor-advocates how to connect with and support students.

      Ron Raglin, U-46 chief of equity and social justice, has been developing a new mentor initiative for the district since he started last fall. The research-based program teaches mentor-advocates how to connect with and support students.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer


Among its approximately 41,000 students, Elgin Area School District U-46 had about 2,000 middle and high schoolers with at least two failing grades and five absences during the past school year.

Their names went on a districtwide "2-5 list" so teachers and administrators could keep tabs on them. Some of the students are at risk of dropping out. Many don't have the support they need from adults at home.

Incoming seniors on that list and those who have already dropped out of school will be the most sought-after groups for a new mentor initiative getting under way this summer. The district plans to work backward, bringing in juniors, sophomores and freshman as the number of mentors grows.

Ron Raglin, chief of equity and social justice, has been developing the Game Changer Mentor Advocate Initiative since he started with the district last fall. Raglin said he wants to get to the seniors first then move to the younger students "as quickly but as thoroughly as possible."

"We're in intervention," Raglin said. "We're trying to move to prevention. The goal is to move all the way down to the elementary level -- thoughtfully, succinctly, but systematically."

U-46 students are not alone in having access to mentors. A three-tiered mentor program called UNITY at Hoffman Estates High School was given a grant to start up this past school year. The BOOST Mentor Program is run in Indian Prairie School District 204 middle schools with help from Breaking Free Inc. and the district's business and education partnership team. And Big Brothers Big Sisters, perhaps the most well-known mentor program in the country, directly serves Cook, Lake and DuPage counties with affiliates in Kane and McHenry counties.

For the new initiative in U-46, about 30 mentors have volunteered, including elected officials and business leaders in Elgin and Streamwood as well as teachers from the district's schools and education associations.

Raglin envisions the mentors as people who will push these students, support them and advocate for them. He hopes community leaders on their side will make a difference for students in meetings with teachers or other adults in their lives.

"We know there's a different response when certain people show up," Raglin said. "It's that whole advocacy piece. It's a game changer."

Joyce Fountain, who recently finished up 20 years on the U-46 school board, will be mentoring at least one girl through the program next year. Fountain is a sociology professor at Elgin Community College and has been involved in mentor initiatives through U-46 and the college for years.

Raglin plans to pair mentors with students by gender first and then connect them with adults in the fields they hope to pursue. If the pair's similarities can include ethnicity and race, that's a plus but not necessarily the ultimate goal.

Fountain doesn't expect students to know they want to be sociologists or university professors before they finish high school but said she'll be able to underscore the importance of education, learning people skills and building character -- the things that will prepare students for any career they choose.

"It's some of the building blocks that we're hoping to try to reinforce for students," Fountain said.

After background checks and an online course about district policies and procedures, the first group of mentors will get a one-day, intensive training session in early September. The following week, they'll meet the students and their parents to make sure everyone is comfortable with each other before getting into a regular routine of support.

The district will hold monthly training sessions with mentors to troubleshoot, help them better reach the students and equip them to handle the problems that arise during the school year.

The research-based mentor model, developed in California, pushes the volunteers to focus on a student's holistic needs, like access to food, a safe home and a support system. An emphasis on attending and doing well in school completes the picture.

Once these mentors are trained, they will be able to train the volunteers who come after them, allowing the district program to grow more quickly. Raglin's goal is to eventually pair every student with a supportive adult.

Many U-46 students already have mentor relationships through their churches, community organizations or even schools. Raglin does not want to duplicate efforts, and students with existing mentors will not be eligible for the Game Changer program.

Besides leaning toward the oldest students on the 2-5 list first, the program will accept only those who have completed a career survey. That way mentors will be able to guide students through choosing courses and engage in discussions about taking appropriate steps toward their goals.

The shortlist for the coming school year includes about 350 high schoolers who failed two courses, missed at least five days of school during the 2012-13 school year and have completed the career survey. With about 30 mentors signed up so far, the district is actively searching for more adults to help its highest-need students.

"They just need somebody to believe in them," Raglin said. "To be able to listen and give appropriate, sound advice. … We're looking for a mentor that can be right there and can be honest, straightforward, tough-minded and tenderhearted.

"We're looking for game changers."

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