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Big Brothers/Sisters now help mentor local pupils

December 01, 2004

They call it "acting white." That's what some minority students say about peers who try to achieve academically.

That's a dangerous attitude and one that must be changed if these students - and the community - are to achieve better things.

So said Paul Slocumb, author of "Removing the Mask - Giftedness in Poverty."

Slocumb spoke at the Oct. 28 meeting of the Washington County Minority Achievement Task Force. He praised the group's members for their initiative, but said school officials would have to do more to get out the message that good grades are the only sure route to success.

Do more? How much more, I thought, can school personnel, especially classroom teachers, be asked to do?

Probably not a lot, but then I remembered my own experience in the mentor program at Fountaindale Elementary School. Here was a source of new labor, of potential friends who can communicate one-on-one the idea that few succeed without a diploma.

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Not long after, I wrote that in a column, suggesting that creation of an enhanced mentoring program should be one of the task force's top recommendations.

I needn't have bothered. It's already been done by Big Brothers Big Sisters, as Bob McKee, the group's executive director for Washington County, explained to me recently.

McKee said that because of today's busy lifestyle, in which people are working more and more hours, it's gotten more difficult to find men and women willing to commit to giving a child three or four hours a week.

And so the group has put together a school-based mentoring program, headed up by Tracy Mumma, a Hagerstown native with an elementary education degree from Shepherd College.

McKee said the program was launched at Eastern Elementary School in the 2002-03 school year, in part because of that school's "high mobility" rate.

Many students there are from lower-income families and move in and out of the district far more often than higher-income families.

The program has now expanded to the Pangborn Elementary and E. Russell Hicks Middle schools, McKee said.

He added that there have been requests to take it to other schools, but the group is moving slowly now, to ensure quality continues at its present level.

Not just anyone can become a mentor. You must be 18, complete an application and provide two references. You must also pass motor vehicle and criminal background checks.

Once those are done, you commit to spending an hour a week at the school with your mentor child, doing anything from helping with schoolwork to just talking about what's going on in the child's life.

"Since July 1, 23 mentors have applied, been screened and are in the process of being matched," McKee said.

"We don't just put the child with any adult. We look at what the mentor has to offer, because our goal is to have a successful match," he said.

Mumma said she checks with each school every day to make sure that the child is in school and that nothing like a special assembly will interfere with the mentor's scheduled time.

If the child is absent, the mentor is called, she said, to save him or her from traveling to the school.

The same happens when the mentor can't make the meeting, McKee said.

"We don't want little Billy sitting and waiting if the mentor can't be there," he said.

After the match, Mumma acts as a resource for the mentor, providing materials, suggestions and even an ear if they need to talk.

"If they need to give me a call, I'm there," she said.

At the school year's end, Mumma said there's an evaluation form which shows whether the student has made progress, academically or otherwise. That's shared with teachers and mentors alike, she said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters also has an end-of-year activity for all school-based mentors and their students, McKee said.

As for summers, Mumma said that the children each get a packet, which, among other things, contains cards students can send to mentors to keep in touch.

Some mentors enjoy the process so much they transfer from the school-based program to the community-based one, which requires spending more time with the child, McKee said.

It's a nice way to bring people into that program, but for those who can't spare the extra hours, the school-based program is a chance to contribute a great deal to a child's life.

To learn more, contact McKee and Mumma at 301-739-4711 or e-mail Mumma at mentor@bbbswcmd.org.

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