Positive Success Mentors: My Brother’s Keeper
Beliefs and practices are needed to close opportunity gaps.
There is a wealth of good work on reframing our beliefs about institutional racism and white privilege. Finding practices that close opportunity gaps is harder. During my time as superintendent in Seattle, we had literally dozens of initiatives intended to eliminate opportunity gaps. And many efforts aimed at improving instruction. Together, those efforts helped close the graduation gap by nearly half and helped three of the most diverse middle schools lead the state in African American math achievement.
One program stands out
My Brother’s Keeper stands head and shoulders above the rest in making a difference for students of color. Positive success mentors make a significant difference in the lives of students. 66% of students participating met proficiency on the state assessment for the first time. 95% of students (previously chronically absent) missed five days or less per semester.
My Brother’s Keeper
This program – My Brother’s Keeper – is based on a national model. It provides a positive mentor of color for chronically absent students that have struggled in school. Mentors work with students a few days each week checking in with students on the importance of school, attendance and hard work. They also provide the key element of someone that looks like them, encouraging them with the message, You can do it!
Research from Johns Hopkins
The program is built on research by Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University. His tools and stories provide inspiration for schools to get started, stay strong, and implement well. In Seattle, we were fortunate to have City support to grow the program from one middle school pilot to five middle schools. https://www.kappanonline.org/absenteeism-school-matters/
Similar good work
Other Seattle programs provide similar experiences at the elementary and high school levels. Team Read (http://teamread.org/) uses a near peer model. At the elementary level older students of color are paid to mentor elementary students in reading. Middle school students, who may have struggled with reading themselves, are now seen as mentors and work harder to live up to that billing. Younger students are motivated to work harder by looking up to the older students. The older student mentors can either claim their pay or bank it in an incentive program that will help pay for college. This program wins rave reviews from all who learn about it and gradually increases the charitable donations to spread the program. City Year (https://www.cityyear.org/seattle ) provides nearly 100 AmeriCorps staff to support, mentor and encourage students at ten elementary schools.
High School examples
At the high school level, an African American civic group – The Breakfast Group – sponsors similar work (http://www.thebreakfastgroup.org/ ). They provide African American teachers/mentors that teach young men about the importance of school along with the social and life skills needed to succeed in life. Again, the presence of positive role models encourages student attendance and participation in class. Kingmakers, a program pioneered out of Oakland Schools, provides a similar curriculum.
Elliot Washor, founder of the Big Picture schools, claims that students will succeed when they can: a) choose a mentor that they can relate to; and b) participate in a community of practice over two years. The community of practice may be academic, sports, cars, music, art – whatever captures the interest of the student. Students work hard because of the interest in the topic and a mentor that is interested in them. As a result of applied effort, the student improves practice over time. They gain confidence (a great life skill) as they gain competence. Their progress is evident to all – most importantly to themselves.
Carol Dweck (Mindset), Angela Duckworth (Grit) and many others write about the importance of: believing in a growth mindset (I can get better); picking challenging goals; and putting in the effort needed to get better. Positive growth mentors, that reflect students’ race and/or interests, help create the beliefs and practices needed for student growth.
A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes