Friday, July 24, 2009

Quitting Is Not An Option: Mentoring at IPS

The following post was written as an article for Urban Times, a community newspaper serving downtown Indianapolis.

Quitting is not an option.

That was the slogan on the t-shirts worn by hundreds of Marion County high school students and scores of adults spread across several sections of Conseco Fieldhouse at the final Pacers home game this year. It is also a tagline for Common Goal, a broad-based community initiative led by the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce to help improve high school graduation rates in Marion County. The Pacers Foundation is a primary sponsor of one of Common Goal’s core strategies – mentoring programs for students, beginning in their freshman year. The game – featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James no less – was a reward for participating students and their volunteer mentors. Including me.

I signed up for Common Goal last August, after reading about it all summer in the newsletters of just about every organization in town, from the state and local Chambers to Techpoint to Junior Achievement. I was aware of the shockingly high drop-out rates, particularly in some IPS schools where less than 40% of freshmen graduate in four years; and it looked like this was a program that all “the players” had coalesced behind. And for me, the whole point of being self-employed is to have the flexibility to do some things that matter. I figured, if I couldn’t find two or three hours a month to be a foot soldier in a community-wide campaign to combat a significant problem, who would? So, even though working with teenagers isn’t my favorite way to spend my time, I volunteered. And I’m glad I did.

“Marion County’s graduation rate is 70%,” says Eric Bedel, Common Goal Director for
the Chamber. “Our goal is to increase that to 80% by 2011.”

To that end, the Common Goal program is raising money to sponsor several different intervention strategies, from which each individual high school in the county selects one or more programs that meet its needs. These range from internships to schools hiring full-time “Graduation Coaches.” “In many cases,” Bedel acknowledges, “we don’t DO the program, we just FUND it.”

In the case of the “mentoring” option, however, Common Goal is taking a more hands-on approach, about which, more later. Also, the program is county-wide, despite the fact that the issue is most problematic in the inner city.

“We are interested in every student who is at risk to fail to graduate,” Bedel points out. “So when we bring together educators across the county, whether their school is concerned with 3 students or 330, we are still affecting lives.”

But I live and own property within the IPS District, and I have a vested interest in that school district being viable, so when I was given a choice of schools to work at, I chose the New Tech High magnet program at Arsenal Tech, right in the heart of Urban Times country.

For New Tech Academic Dean Scott DeFreese, the “intervention” that works is mentoring. “My students lack access to professionals,” DeFreese says. “The thing I see kids lacking most is not skills, but an understanding of what the business world expects of you when you step out of school.”

Mentoring through Common Goal at New Tech is a regular, but not overwhelming, commitment. I went to a two-hour orientation session last August where I received a three-ring binder with several weeks’ worth of activities and discussion starters. In September I had a ninety-minute orientation to New Tech High and its specific academic approach, which focuses on teaching students 21st Century workplace skills by having them work in teams to produce the equivalent of commercial products, while still studying a mainstream curriculum. For instance, when I first met my students, they were reading The Odyssey like any other high school freshmen. But instead of writing a paper or taking a test on it, they were producing a brochure and other marketing materials for an imaginary travel agency that was selling Mediterranean cruises retracing Ulysses’ trip.

And then I met my five students for an hour every other Wednesday morning for the rest of the school year. Combined with travel time and maybe twenty minutes in reviewing the “curriculum” before each session, the time commitment still came to less than four hours per month (not counting Pacers games and a couple of “brown bag lunch” sessions, where I took my turn dragooning professionals from the community, such as UT’s Bill Brooks, to come talk to the students about career options over the lunch hour.)

My biggest concern going in to the experience was that engaging fifteen-year-olds from any background would be like pulling teeth – I envisioned sitting across from bored, sullen, skeptical kids slouching behind crossed arms, getting one-word answers to the suggested questions in my handbook. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

My five freshmen were diverse in personality as well as ethnicity, engaged, curious – and liked each other. Now, New Tech is a magnet program, but only one of my five came from a family that had made the conscious decision to choose this school over closer ones. The other four all lived in the same near-eastside neighborhoods that Arsenal Tech itself serves, surrounded by all the challenges and economic circumstances with which those communities struggle.

I learned quickly, along with my frequent mentoring partners Marti and Leilani, to use the curriculum as a guideline and not a script. We found that letting the kids talk for fifteen minutes about whatever was on their minds, then drawing in one or two key points from each “lesson plan” (on budgeting time, asking for help, etc.) as the opportunity arose, was a much better way to build rapport than covering the entire set of recommended activities.

And what is on their minds is pretty normal stuff. They want to talk about cars and music and video games. They want to acquire stuff and most of them have part-time jobs to get the money to do that. They think that some teachers talk too much and listen too little; they think some of their assignments are a waste of time. So did I at their age. They all have aspirations for the future that involve college or at least learning a trade, not just graduating from high school. None of them are biding their time to age 16 so they can drop out and sell drugs and make babies.

Maybe I got amazingly lucky with my blind draw of five students – whose names I’m dying to share with you, but can’t, for privacy reasons. I find it hard to believe that, statistically speaking, three out of the five of “my kids” won’t graduate. But maybe that’s the point. Sixty percent of IPS freshmen are not “lost causes”; but historically, for the past several years, 60% of them have become lost, and you’ve got to assume that that will continue to be the case if we don’t do some things differently. Common Goal, and New Tech High and its primary sponsor, Techpoint Foundation, are banking that developing long-term relationships with mentors from the “real world” is a big part of doing things differently.

“With Scott’s leadership, New Tech is focusing on expectations,” says Laura Dodds, the program director for Techpoint Foundation assigned to New Tech High. “Expectations of respect for teachers and for each other. Our kids are used to having professionals walk into the classroom. They’re used to talking to adults.”

Still, “it takes time to build trust with teens,” Dodds admits. Time, I think, and flexibility. At a mid-year debriefing with other mentors, most of the frustration and dissatisfaction was voiced by mentors who had stuck too rigorously to the “curriculum.”

So this summer, Common Goal has hired Ginny Babbitt as a Program Coordinator to conduct focus groups with current mentors and rework the curriculum and the orientation and training process to encourage more of the open-ended mentoring that worked for my colleagues and me. One goal for the coming year is to recruit sufficient mentors to have two mentors for every six kids.

“It’s going to take a few months to warm up to these kids and for them to warm up to you,” Babbitt says. But the point is not to convey a curriculum; rather, “It’s a chance for a student to see a professional, and say, ‘I could become that person.’”

If I have a frustration from my experience with Common Goal in general and mentoring at New Tech in particular, it is a sense that its goals are too modest. If we are successful at increasing Marion County’s graduation rate from 70% to 80% by 2011, how many kids are still going to drop out in the next two years? If mentoring is one of the answers, why aren’t we recruiting ten thousand mentors, out of the six hundred thousand adults in Marion County, so that every group of six high school students in the county has two professionals with whom to build a relationship?

But I can’t mentor thirty thousand kids. What I can do is be there in the fall when my five kids show up to start their sophomore year, and again the year after that, and again the year after that. Meanwhile, sixty new freshman will start at New Tech in late August, and they’ll need twenty new mentors, since Leilani and Marti and our colleagues and I will be moving up to work with our sophomores. If you’re able to help, please contact Common Goal at or Laura Dodds at

I plan to be there, at least for another three years, hopefully until my kids all graduate. Because quitting is not an option.

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