The Gilbertsville-Mount Upton Central School District may be small, but when it comes to student mentors, it boasts a big number: 100. As in 100 percent.
That’s how many GMU students were included in this year’s newly expanded Mentoring Program, which matches students in Pre-Kindergarten through 5th grade with those in grades 6 through 12. For the district of 369 students, that’s a lot of organization and coordination of schedules and students. But organizers say the payoff will be well worth the effort.
“It’s going to change lives,” said Heather Wilcox, acting principal at GMU. “We’re really excited about it.”
The program meets every Friday at the end of the day. Wilcox noted that choosing a time was easy, as the district had received a lot of feedback from parents who said early dismissal on Fridays presented challenges to picking up their children on time after work. The Mentor Program is a nice fit for that time.
In the program, Pre-K students are matched up with 6th-graders, Kindergarteners with 7th-graders, and so on so that each mentor has one or two ‘mentees’ to work with. The students learn social and life skills through a series of activities across seven different stations.
Chance Kilmer, 7, is a third-grader in the program. He said he likes being with his mentor, 10th-grader Teddy Sharkey. “He lifted me up so I could dunk!” Chance said. “We have fun,” added the third-grader, who said he has an older sister in college and a 9-year-old brother.
Sharkey said he gets a lot out of the new friendship. He has a brother who is younger than Chance, and this gives him more experience in the big-brother role. “You realize how much they look up to you, and it’s good to be part of how they learn about things,” he said.
The expansion to include every student comes after several years of offering a volunteer mentor program, Wilcox said. “We had about 50 students in the Mentoring Program last year, and that was our all-time high. We wanted to reach the kids we knew needed it, so expanding was the way to go.”
Another incentive came from the Clark Foundation, a Cooperstown, NY-based charitable organization that began offering support to Otsego County districts years ago and approached officials at GMU and the Morris School District in 2014 with an offer to become the 12th and 13th districts to join. By signing on, GMU now receives eight to 10 scholarships for its students each year, most of them handed out at graduation.
“The scholarships our students receive at graduation are for four years of college, so the commitment from the Clark Foundation is huge,” Wilcox said.
To participate with the Clark Foundation, the district had to adopt criteria through the College For Every Student (CFES) Brilliant Pathways program, a non-profit organization that helps students in more than 1,500 rural and urban schools across the country and in Ireland. CFES emphasizes three areas: Pathways to College, Mentoring, and Leadership Through Service.
“I’m proud of our 6-12 students as I watch them interacting with our elementary students,” said GMU Superintendent Annette Hammond. “It’s easy to see the benefits of such a program when I hear the laughter, see hand-holding, watch them complete a task together, or see them listen intently to one another.”
Jaiden Larson is a second-grader who said he enjoys coloring and drawing with this mentor, 9th-grader Morgan Keuhn. “She’s nice,” said the oldest brother to a 4-year-old sister and a 10-month-old baby brother. “It’s like I got an older sister.”
Morgan is the oldest sister in a family that includes three step-siblings and two siblings. “I like doing this,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, and you can see the littler kids getting a lot out of it.”
Morgan is surprised to hear that a small number of her classmates do not relish the role model role. “It’s great that all the way up until we graduate, we’ll get to work with the same kids, and that will help them see how important the program is.
“Why wouldn’t you want to help someone that way?”
Raquel Norton, a Pre-K through Grade 12 Library Media Specialist at GMU, is the district’s liaison with CFES, and she directs the Mentoring Program. She met with the Mentoring Committee over the summer, reviewing every class list in the district to match mentors with mentees.
Two weeks into the program, the students have already begun to build friendships, she said. “They’ve already made connections. We can see how being responsible for this relationship has made a lot of the mentors proud and given them something to think about.”
Norton added that because the students are always working in groups with other mentors and mentees, there is a shared responsibility and no mentor ever feels isolated or pressured to act alone. And there are faculty and staff supervisors for every grade level.
Some mentees, she added, come from limited or troubled family lives that may include being raised by a grandparent or lacking the social interactions that are so important for early childhood development. “This helps those students, and for those mentors who are ‘only children’ or haven’t had this kind of responsibility, it can be a great thing.”
Hammond said she agrees. “Our purpose in designing this program was a hope that students would better understand the lifelong skills of empathy, responsibility/reliability, listening skills and teamwork,” she said.
“It’s rewarding to see these skills being used by our mentors, and being accepted and appreciated by our elementary students.”