USA-Helping Children Succeed in School and in Life
Matilda Raffa Cuomo
have always needed three pillars of support: home, community and
school. When one of these supports is broken, the child suffers.
Although our business is “mentoring,” we at Mentoring USA are
acutely aware of the whole picture as far as kids are concerned.
As the year winds down, many of our mentors and mentees are wholly
preoccupied with city-wide tests, and rightfully so. Tests are
needed for accountability. It is important to be able to measure
childrens' progress from year to year, and to make sure that teachers
and schools are helping each child to achieve his highest learning
It is an unfortunate fact that children in urban environments
often suffer with respect to these tests: it is not that they
are any less able, but rather that they lack some of the advantages
of their more affluent suburban counterparts. When more than 50
percent of our elementary school children cannot read at grade
level, how can our expectations for performance be the same for
First, we have to acknowledge the disparity. Not all children
are equally prepared for standardized tests. We have to be honest
about the fact that schools and families need help. Then we need
to work to level the playing field as far as school and testing
are concerned. A mentor is an invaluable part of this process
for a disadvantaged child. Mentoring USA makes a complete effort
to develop the child in all ways. A mentor works with a child
not only on academics, but on developing social skills and competencies
and improving a child's self-esteem via educating the child about
his or her culture and heritage.
Mentoring USA has a special training component for the volunteer
mentors that empowers our volunteers to succeed with hard-to-reach
youth. Mentors leave our training equipped with the skills to
offer the kind of attention friendship and instruction to their
mentees that is often unavailable to them in a foster home, agency,
group home, or in an overcrowded school or community center. These
children will remember their dedicated mentors for a lifetime.
In addition, Mentoring USA mentors address a range of issues with
their mentees, from school to friends to family life. Mentors
aren't afraid to tackle the “tough topics” with kids.
As you might suspect, these dramatic attitudinal and behavioral
shifts result in enhanced performance in the classroom. The United
States Department of Justice has noted that “the experience of
failure itself” during the crucial elementary years increases
the risk of school drop-out, drug abuse, delinquency, violence
and teen pregnancy. Early-intervention mentoring seeks to get
students on the path to success early, before a child has gone
too far down an undesirable path and intervention becomes difficult.
This past September, Mentoring USA began to work with ESL students.
ESL students are outsiders in terms of both language and culture.
I was recently visiting a school in Brooklyn as “Principal for
a Day” and was discussing with the principal the need to begin
ESL programming as early as preschool.
We both agreed that it makes sense to begin English immersion
for immigrant students as soon as they enter the school system,
and their young brains are able to embrace foreign sounds and
letters with ease. I have always advocated for universal pre-kindergarten
in order to give all of our children a sound, equal academic foundation,
and I think that universal ESL education would work hand-in-hand
with universal pre-K to help put all students on an equal footing.
Mentoring USA's Fordham Youth Ministry site, located in the Fordham
section of the Bronx is a heartening, real life example of the
difference a mentor can make. These Fordham kids (mentees) are
primarily recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America.
Last year six of the 16 children in this after-school program
were identified by their teachers as being at risk of not passing
the citywide tests—and not being able to advance to the
next grade. Our mentoring program staff and mentors met to discuss
options, and decided to concentrate on intensive, one-to-one tutoring
in reading and math for the remaining mentoring sessions that
spring. Through their combined efforts, coupled with the children's
hard work, every child passed and was promoted to the next grade.
One young girl's story is particularly poignant. Michelle was
in seventh grade and had never learned her multiplication tables,
which hampered her ability to understand more advanced math. Her
mentor doubled up on mentoring sessions, coming twice a week,
and drilled Michelle on her multiplication tables. Once she had
mastered them, she was able to perform long division and other
mathematical operations that had eluded her. This year Michelle
graduated from the Mentoring USA program and was accepted into
the highly selective LaGuardia High School for the Performing
Arts. What a difference a mentor can make!
At this time of year, when graduation caps are flying, I recall
the graduations of my own five children, from high school, college,
and then graduate programs. It is such a tremendous source of
pride for parents to watch their children fulfill their educational
promise. It is our mission to impart this knowledge to children.
My father's lesson to me, “the best gift I can give you is a college
education,” is perhaps even more true today in a tight job market.
We encourage all parents, mentors, teachers, and friends to not
merely help children to achieve the standards outlined by the
Board of Education, but also to “raise the bar” with respect to
both school and personal achievement. Children need to be taught
how to do their best in all areas of their lives. It is up to
us to work with parents to show children good work habits, solid
values, discipline and respect for one another. Every graduate
will succeed in life with these skills in place. #
Cuomo is the former first lady of NY and founder and chairperson
of Mentoring USA.
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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