By Ruth Marino
Mentoring a student from a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It helped me learn, at an emotional as well as cognitive level, about discrimination, poverty and ways of coping. This was invaluable for developing and understanding of parents who are “on the other side of the table” at our meetings.
While I believe that all school psychologists “should” mentor students, I do not expect everyone to go out and join a mentoring program. I was involved with a church which assigned a child from the surrounding neighborhood to every participant. In other words, it was involuntary. At the time, I was a school psychologist, coordinator of special services, enrolled part-time in a Ph.D. program; I was not looking for activities with which to fill the time. However, I would encourage others to accept the opportunity to mentor if it presents itself. If you are aware of a child who could use support, become involved in an organized program with that child.
Selecting the mentee.
When I worked at a Head Start Program one summer, I wondered about all the children I met in the neighborhood who were not involved in the program. In other words, children from the same community whose parents neglected to enroll them in Head Start. These were the ones who I thought could use the most guidance. Our mentoring program was tantamount to picking children “off the street.” We were permitted to match ourselves with one of the neighborhood children. I chose a six-year-old boy because he was sensitive, a quality I value. I was worried that he would become “hard” if there was no intervention. I later learned that the terms are “decent” and “street” (Anderson, 1999). As school psychologists, we know when the needs extend beyond shared activities on weekends. I would advise seeking a mentee who is capable of bonding.
In my school psychology program at Temple University, we were instructed to treat each child “as you would want your own personal child to be treated.” I decided to use this guide as a sort of experiment with an “n” of one. What would happen if I interacted with my mentee as I would a child of my own? The only people the neighborhood children knew who had a high school diploma and a license to drive were the teachers at their local school.
While we participated in the activities organized by the program, such as trips to “Great Adventure” amusement park, I also had my mentee help me clean the house every other weekend. I used the guide of working together with him, then inspecting his work when he worked by himself and, finally, at the age of twelve, no longer needing to check his work. He later told me this helped him learn work habits.I talked him into opening a savings account for the money he earned. Because the bank closed before his school did, I went to take him out early. That’s when I learned that there were armed guards at his kindergarten through sixth grade school. Since I had worked in a Philadelphia suburb and in New Jersey elementary schools, this came as a surprise.
Extending the Relationship.
At the age of nine, he asked “Do you think I’ll ever make it to the middle class?” I didn’t know where this question originated, nor that he even knew about class differences. As is true with many middle class parents (Payne, 2005), I decided it was time for “lessons after school.” Because he performed “flips” on the sidewalk, I looked for a gymnastics program. There was a team for boys at the YWCA across the street from his school. One of the parents volunteered to provide after -school tutoring while the girls’ team practiced. His was the only gymnastics team in the entire Northeast region comprised entirely of Black children. After becoming involved, it was clear to me why: gymnastics is an expensive sport. It’s not like putting up a hoop in the alley to play basketball. Several of his teammates were clearly Olympic material, but lacking the financial resources, they were unable to proceed with further training. Now, of course, there are many Black gymnasts.
When his teacher mentioned behavior problems, with the goal of erasing his name from the board list of children expected to stay after school, I developed a simple behavior plan that required daily reporting. By charting his behavior every day, I noticed that there were “good days” and “bad days” but that, throughout the year, the line remained basically flat. Nevertheless, the teacher’s perception was that he had improved substantially, and he received the “most improved student” award for the entire school at the end of the year. I concluded that any sort of support was appreciated by the staff at his school.
I learned about discrimination at a personal level. Whenever my mentee and I went into a store together, we were followed around by someone working there. Yet, when my white nephew from Kansas came to visit, the clerks were nowhere to be found. My mentee didn’t realize this constituted discrimination because this was his lived experience. As the only white “parent” at the gymnastics meets, I thought the judging was harsher with our team than others. The fact that our group “moon walked” onto the floor didn’t help to mitigate the underlying prejudice, in my view. However, none of the other parents acknowledged that they noticed. Whether they didn’t see it,or decided to keep quiet because there was nothing that they could do anyway, I’ll never know. I had the advantage of knowing how people who are not minorities would be treated.
Sometimes the discrimination was especially difficult for me, like the time I signed him up for a summer trip at the school where I worked in New Jersey. The children were to bring a lunch, so I prepared chicken, which I knew he loved. However, he didn’t want to take it because “they think Black people eat fried chicken and watermelon.” I felt a lump in my throat: he wouldn’t eat something he liked because of the anticipated reaction. While many parents of minority students experience this, it was a first for me and I’ll never forget it.
Attending “The Power of Poverty” workshop by Cathy A. Hamilton, Ph.D. at NASP in 2005 helped me frame some of the issues of generational poverty. While my mentee’s paternal grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” north during the twentieth century, his mother came from generational poverty. Dr. Hamilton recommended “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” (2005), written by Ruby K. Payne, herself an educator. This assisted with comprehending how difficult it is to learn the “hidden rules” for what amounts to a separate culture. My mentee moved frequently, sometimes every few months because of inability to pay the rent. Often, he and his mother and siblings moved in with others. The phone was repeatedly turned off, occasionally even the electricity. Once when he called after a move, he needed to go to the street corner and read the signs to let me know where he was. These are huge cultural differences that middle class children do not have. I learned it is not as easy to change cultures as many people think.
As he became older, it was clear to me that he was slipping into the same pattern as his two older siblings: fading away from school. His siblings attended less and less in eighth grade, failed ninth, and were in the process of failing ninth again when they stopped showing up altogether. When his mother called me in January of his eighth grade year, and wanted me to tell him to go to school in the mornings, I knew that there was little I could do. He had already been absent or late thirty days so far that year. He completed a daily journal each morning. Almost every entry stated that he was hungry. The reason there was no food in the house, and his mother stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s on her way home from her night job as a nurse assistant, was that his oldest brother and friends would eat everything. He told me he was consistently late because they moved into a different neighborhood and other students would attack him on his way to school, so he waited until they were gone before leaving the house.
I began looking for alternatives, and decided to send him to a private high school, which has boarding, in a rural area. When I asked our church to help pay for it, one person approached me and said, “you don’t want to change his culture.” While I didn’t answer, I thought “You mean the culture where 80% of Black males between the ages of 18 and 35 in Philadelphia are incarcerated, on parole, or have a record? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Because I cared about him, I wasn’t as concerned about political correctness, as what I thought was best. If he wanted to come back to “his culture,” at least there would be a choice. The school had a requirement that the students live off campus the first year before going into the dorms as sophomores. There were families in the area willing to take in students during the week for a fee. I called around, and finally found a person who attended my church when he was at Wharton Business School in Philadelphia. He and his wife agreed to provide a home beginning a week before school started, and they didn’t charge. They treated him as another child in their family; the relationship he built with them changed his life. The father needed to use all of his Wharton diplomacy to interact both with my mentee and the school. While it may seem like a simple solution to change the environment, it was not as easy as it sounds. My mentee was fifteen years old when he entered high school.
Differences in Schools.
My mentee concluded during his first year that the teachers, curriculum and instruction were not that different in his new school when compared with Philadelphia. He reported that it was essentially the same work, but “I just didn’t do it.” According to him, what did vary were the expectations, and most importantly, the other students. At his new school, everyone was on time (they were either bused or lived on campus), and were prepared for school with their homework completed. An example would be his first year when he submitted a hurriedly finished paper, for which he received a grade of “F.” In Philadelphia, where at least half of his class did not turn in homework, he would have been rewarded for effort, however meager.
Access to Resources.
Because my mentee was on the varsity basketball team, and drivers’ training was part of the curriculum at his high school, the family decided he needed a car so that they would not need to drive him back from practices. Their church got him a used vehicle, for which he was expected to pay all expenses, including insurance. The father contacted a friend, the owner of a restaurant/ supermarket, who agreed to give him a part-time job. When I called the owner and offered to subsidize the salary, he responded that my mentee “was holding his own.” My mentee reported that everyone there, including all the high school students, had no “down time” except for official breaks. This job placement was essential in instilling good work habits, which I believe were as critical to his future success as his subsequent diploma. He would probably never have been hired, except for the intervention of the family with whom he was living. One important aspect of mentoring is access to resources.
Pass Down of Wealth.
An area in which I was blindsided, which will come as no surprise to parents, is that it costs money to raise a child. I learned that a main reason people stay in generational poverty is not necessarily lack of appropriate values, but lack of ability to share wealth with the next generation. My mentee needed to be pulled out of the Philadelphia Public Schools, not because the schools were “bad” but because he required what were essentially “wrap around services.” He also needed financial support for education after high school, and later, down-payment on a house. This fact often escapes people in mentoring programs.
Beth Doll reports in Resilient Classrooms (Doll, Zucker, Brehm, 2004), that “Resilient children are children who are successful despite the odds.” She gives criteria for evaluating the success of “At-Risk” students, which include some education after high school. “They (resilient students) earn advanced educational degrees, achieve successful careers, become financially stable, form happy and healthy families, and give back to their communities.” Scores on high stakes achievement tests are not part of the criteria listed. What is stated, however, are the results of longitudinal research which indicate “children who overcame high-risk childhoods were those who had a close bond with at least one caretaker, or had access to nurturing from other adults.” She reports that “At-Risk” students can be “successful despite the odds, but not because they single-handedly overcome risk. Instead, truly resilient children are vulnerable children who benefited from the caring sustenance and guidance of a community” (2004). Robert Pianta reports that almost every “At-Risk” student who succeeded can point to at least one adult such as an aunt, a teacher or a grandparent who was significant in his or her life.
I would advise anyone mentoring a child not to give up when it seems overwhelming. For this I have to thank my mentee, who kept up the relationship, calling me when his family moved, and when he needed help. One such time was when his paternal grandparents asked him to leave because neither of his parents was living there. When I arrived to take him to his mother, he was on the front lawn with his belongings in a trash bag.
My mentee has met the criteria of success for “At-Risk” students: he has a master’s degree, is an administrator in the Philadelphia public schools, and is part of a church and several volunteer organizations that give back to the community. His wife is a school psychologist and, most importantly, a NASP member. She recently earned a doctorate from Drexel University a week before the birth of their third son. My mentee works with “At-Risk” students at a school in a high poverty neighborhood. He is able to translate cultural differences for the staff and connect with challenging students in a way that others cannot. Most gratifying for me is that he gains intrinsic satisfaction from his job. He is “passing it forward” in that he realizes he is making a significant difference in the lives of his students.
Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the Street. Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (pp. 35-65). W.W. Norton & Company. New York/ London.
Doll, B., Zucher, S., Brehm, K. (2004). Resilient Classrooms. Creating healthy Environments for Learning(pp.1-2). The Guilford Press. New York/London.
Pianta, R. C. (1999). Enhancing relationships between children and teachers. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10314-000
Ruth Marino was a school psychologist in NJ elementary schools for 36 years, retiring in 2011. She has been an NJASP Board member for over 30 years, including President, Southern Delegate and Secretary. Currently, Ruth co-chairs NJASP’s Research Committee.