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Peer Mentors Help Struggling Teens Get to Class

By Amy Zimmer | March 19, 2015 7:40am
 A peer mentoring program at Chelsea's Landmark High aims to improve attendance and performance.
Peer mentor program at Landmark High School
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CHELSEA — Kelvin Correa, a sophomore at Chelsea's Landmark High School, had been cutting classes regularly before he paired up with Pamela del Rosario in January.

Since then, Pamela, also a sophomore, texts him nearly every night or morning asking if he's done his homework and whether he'll come to class.

No, Pamela is not Kelvin's girlfriend. She's his mentor.

The two decided to work together after a "speed dating" type event at a retreat upstate where the program's 12 peer mentors met their 13 mentees.

So far, the match is working out, Kelvin and administrators say.

"If I need help on a project, she'll be there. She texts me and tells me to come to school. She asks me, 'Did you do your homework?' My mom asks me that too, but not as much," said Kelvin, 15, from Inwood. "It's hard. Sometimes I want to slack off. [But] it's good. Someone's actually looking out for me."

Research shows that mentoring relationships reduce absenteeism, boost feelings of social acceptance, improve one's chance of going to college and lessen feelings of depression, according to the National Mentoring Partnership.

Landmark, a small high school that shares a building with six other schools, suffers from a low graduation rate and high absenteeism

Two years ago, Caron Pinkus took over the progressive school — where students are evaluated based on portfolio work rather than state exams — and began creating a range of programs to bring in "some of the students who felt like outliers, who say, 'School isn't for me,' the ones who roam the hall or hide in the staircases."

She charged a group of student leaders last year with designing a program to tackle school issues, and they created a pilot mentoring program with the help of a grad student from Teachers College.

Initially focused on students who were chronically absent, the program broadened this year to help improving overall performance.

Mentors do whatever they can to make sure their mentees show up to class. (One mentor last year, who lived near his mentee, went to that student's home every morning and waited for him to get dressed to come to school, Pinkus noted.)  They talk with their mentee's teachers and parents and help them with school work.

Seven of the 10 mentees from the first year saw significant improvement in their attendance rates, Pinkus said.

There's no way to track how many schools have peer-mentoring programs. But Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has made peer mentoring a priority and is seeking to expand mentoring opportunities around the city, Department of Education officials said.

"These programs help students transition into high school, provide student tutoring, and combat absenteeism or bullying," DOE spokeswoman Yuridia Peña said.

Landmark's program helped Kelvin's mentor, Pamela, too.

As a freshman, she regularly skipped out on school in the afternoon — until she was paired with a mentor. 

"I would get tired by noon and I was like, 'I want to go home and take a nap,'" Pamela, 15, from Harlem, said. "I had an attitude. I didn’t want to talk to people."

And she didn't want to "be part of the group" when she was approached about the program. But she reluctantly agreed, and then something shifted.

She went from resenting "having so many people on me" to seeking homework help from her mentor since she worried if she asked her teachers they "would think I wasn't paying attention in class."

She re-joined the program this year as a mentor, and is the only one working with a student in her own grade.

It's sometimes awkward, she acknowledged, like when she asks Kelvin to sit next to her when he's goofing around in class with his friends. It's also forcing her to stay on top of her own work.

"I'm motivated to do more because I have to be a role model," Pamela said.

Jaden Dominguez, a 17-year-old senior from Inwood who was one of the program's founders, said they select mentors through an application process, looking for "students we felt would be responsible, had time and would be engaged."

To find mentees, they solicit suggestions from teachers and administrators for "students who had potential to do better."

Besides meeting regularly as a group and one-on-one, the students also go to college fairs and will be shadowing professionals in various fields to help with college and career planning.

Selina Wu, a freshman who lives near City Hall, would cut school for days at a time and watch Netflix movies on her phone or spend time on social networks all day. She's recently worked with her mentor on figuring out what assignments she needs to make-up and is no longer failing her classes.  

"High school was new to me. I didn't have any friends here," explained Selina. "When I started coming, I started making friends."

Being part of the program gives her access to many new friends, noted Landmark's guidance counselor Karina Simancas, who said that's a benefit beyond the school help.

"All of a sudden they know all of these people, and not just ninth graders, but students from 11th and 12th grade," Simancas said. "Besides having the mentor, who they have access to all of the time, they have this larger network. It opens up their world."