Mentoring program for at-risk youth begins with college visits in 6th grade

After the examIn junior and senior years, when most students are focused on the college admissions process, it is often too late for many academically at-risk students to catch up. Some may have dropped out of school, others have earned grades that are too poor to get them into college and many lack the confidence to even dream about getting a college degree.

A recent study in American Secondary Education describes one Texas middle school’s ambitious mentoring program to give at-risk students a better chance of going to college. The program, which begins with taking students on college visits in 6th grade, was effective in changing students’ perceptions of college, according to annual student surveys. It also was effective in reducing the number of dropouts, the researchers report.

“The current study is significant because the findings from this study at year 5 of the 7-year term suggest that the project’s many strategies to build a college-going culture through mentoring may be associated with students’ growth in positive perceptions and aspirations about college, perseverance in school as opposed to withdrawing, and improvement in state-mandated assessment scores,” the researchers write. “These factors may contribute to improving these students’ likelihood of attending college.”

Preservice Teacher-Students mentoring students

Students in this Texas middle school were mentored by preservice teachers attending a nearby university. Each semester a different group of about 25-30 preservice teachers came to the public school campus twice a week, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m as part of their training. Typically, one mentor worked with 2 students throughout the semester, coaching them twice each week in half-hour sessions.

The program had 5 major goals during grades 6-10, but the activities varied each year. The 5 major goals of the program were to help students:

  • understand the nature of college
  • recognize that a college education may be important to future success
  • gain positive perceptions and aspiration about college
  • prepare academically for college admission
  • set short-term and long-term goals

Below are examples of some of the mentoring program activities by grade level:

6th grade

  • Visit a college campus and write about the experience
  • Create a digital story about a positive school experience
  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor

7th grade

  • Visit a college campus and write about the experience
  • Create a digital story about my future career
  • Attend presentations by college students about why they are attending college (during college visit)
  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor
  • Create a digital story about how to be successful in middle school

8th grade

  • Visit a college campus and write about the experience
  • Attend presentations by college students about why they are attending college (during college visit)
  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor
  • Attend presentations by college students about how you get admitted and get financial aid (during college visit)
  • Academic tutoring focused on the state-mandated test, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)

9th grade

  • Visit a college campus and write about the experience
  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor to help set short and long- term goals and help student find a niche in high school
  • Presentation by Residential Life coordinator about attractions and nature of college residential life
  • Presentation by college students about becoming a college athlete

10th grade

  • Visit a community college campus
  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor to help set short-term and long-term goals
  • Attend presentations by college students about why they are attending college (during college visit)
  • Attend presentations by college students about how you get admitted and get financial aid (during college visit)
  • Attend presentations by college students about preparing for and taking college entrance exams

11th grade

  • Visit a community college campus
  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor to help set short-term and long-term goals
  • Attend presentations about 2-year and 4- year higher education options
  • Attend presentations by college students about how you get admitted and get financial aid (during college visit)
  • Attend presentations by college students about preparing for and taking college entrance exams

12th grade

  • 2 meetings each week with a college student mentor to help set short-term and long-term goals
  • Attend presentations about 2-year and 4-year higher education options
  • Attend presentations by college students about how you get admitted and get financial aid (during college visit)
  • Attend presentations by college students about preparing for and taking college entrance exams

Changes in perceptions about college

The researchers compared performance and changes in college perceptions of 3 groups of students: honor students, control students and students who received mentoring.

Mentors collected data about the students’ goal orientation using the Manual for the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Scales. During the 8th grade, the focus was on preparing students for the state mandated test with year-long tutoring in language arts and mathematics, and in 9th grade, the focus shifted to individual mentoring and to defining short and long-term goals with the students.

Each year, the researchers evaluated students’ perceptions about college through written surveys that included 11 Likert-type questions such as “How difficult do you think getting accepted into college is?” The surveys made it possible to see changes in students’ college perceptions as they progressed through the program and study, and also to compare the responses of those who received mentoring to students in the control and honor-roll groups.

During the first two years of the study, students created 3 digital stories in response to 3 different prompts including: 1) Describe an interest or positive experience at school, 2) What career or job do you want during your twenties? 3) What must students do to be successful in middle school? The stories provided insight into students’ career goals and perceptions of how to get there.

Following the campus tours, the preservice teachers interviewed students about their experiences on the tours. For example, students might be asked to write about the one thing they remembered about their visit. Researchers also collected the preservice teachers’ reflections on the tours.

About 100 students participated in the study (50 control, 50 receiving mentoring) in 6th grade. Due to attrition and also a change in school boundaries, the number was reduced to 29 students in the control group and 33 in the treatment group by high school. The researchers found that the group of students receiving mentoring services had the highest mean score on the survey of college perceptions and aspirations, followed by honor students and the control group.

During the first 2 years of high school a number of students stopped attending high school in the district. Eleven of the original 40 control students stopped attending school in the district compared to 7 of 40 students receiving services from the mentoring program.

“The need to begin preparation for post-secondary education during middle school has been recognized for a long time, funded nationally, and supported at state and local levels,” the researchers write.

“Mentoring Approaches To Create A College-Going Culture For At –Risk Secondary Level Students,” by Richard Radcliffe and Beth Box, American Secondary Education, Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 2011, pp. 86-107.

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