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New York City
June 2002

Mentoring USA-Helping Children Succeed in School and in Life
By Matilda Raffa Cuomo

Children 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 potential.

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 all children?

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. #

Matilda Cuomo is the former first lady of NY and founder and chairperson of Mentoring USA.


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.