Grant makes mentors possible

AmeriCorps volunteers work with middle-schoolers on social, academic skills and communication

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Ellen McGuiness doesn't remember much from her years as a middle school student.

But after spending the past year and a half at Steamboat Springs Middle School she remembers enough to realize not much has changed.

From the daily crises of students who aren't quite kids and aren't yet adults to the constantly evolving social circles and subsequent dilemmas, McGuiness finds herself on the other side of the middle school equation -- as an adult role model.

She and fellow AmeriCorps mentors Ben Blair, Alia Albertowicz, Sara Logan, Jason Gettel and Adam Garbus spend each school day making the socially and academically difficult middle school years a more enjoyable, understandable and, hopefully, productive time for Routt County students.

The student mentors program began nearly three years ago with an AmeriCorps grant for the Steamboat Springs-based Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, whose director, Gretchen Van De Carr, saw a similar mentor program in Alaska schools and wanted to bring it to the Yampa Valley.

The grant was renewed for three years last fall, meaning Steamboat, South Routt and Hayden middle schools will continue to reap the benefits of AmeriCorps mentors through the 2005-06 school year depending on the amount of money given to AmeriCorps by the federal government, said RMYC program director Avrom Feinberg.

Routt County school officials say they'll be happy if the mentor program continues forever.

"It's an awesome program that adds more adult time to kids who need that added boost," said Steamboat Springs Middle School counselor Margi Briggs-Casson. "The more adults we can put into their lives, the more stability we can put in. We're very lucky here to have three wonderful mentors."

The mentors, Briggs-Casson said, aren't in the school to be teacher aides but rather to help meet the social and emotional needs of students.

The scope of the mentors' work is wide-ranging, from providing basic social and academic help to teaching communication and conflict resolution skills. The mentors, all in their 20s, go to classes to help students with assignments, talk with children in school hallways, eat lunch with students and organize and participate in numerous extracurricular activities, among numerous other outreach projects and efforts.

"They're really focusing on things like good decision-making, peer relations and academics," RMYC's AmeriCorps coordinator Hillary Ackerman said.

Soroco High School and Middle School Principal James Chamberlin has been with the school since AmeriCorps mentors first arrived three years ago.

"The program has really developed into an integral part of the middle school," Chamberlin said. "We've had a lot of success here utilizing the AmeriCorps mentors to be a big part of the classroom and the school."

While they work with all students, the primary charge of the mentors is to work with students who would especially benefit from the presence of adult role models who aren't teachers, administrators or counselors.

"Sometimes, just getting through the day is a challenge for some of our kids," mentor Blair said.

And as many parents and teachers can attest, building a rapport with middle school-age students isn't always easy.

"Developing the relationships with the older students is definitely challenging," said Albertowicz, a mentor at Steamboat Springs Middle School.

Each mentor has a group of teens who have been referred to them by some combination of teachers, administrators or counselors. One of the goals of the program is for a mentor to make personal contact with each of their students at least three times a week, Ackerman said. That contact can include a quick conversation in the hallway or working in one of the student's classes.

The mentors at each school attend nearly every extracurricular activity and help organize other projects and groups for students. The mentors continually attend professional development sessions sponsored by RMYC and Partners in Routt County.

"They don't go home at 3 o'clock," said Soroco middle school teacher and part-time dean of students Andy Davenport. "They're here giving kids extra help after school or working with faculty members. They're not here just to put in their time."

The AmeriCorps grant that funds the program pays each mentor about $300 a week before taxes, Ackerman said.

"They're sacrificing a lot to spend 10 months in the schools," she said. "Most of them have to work second jobs."

The six mentors in Routt County middle schools for the 2003-04 school year were selected from an applicant pool of nearly 200. The applicants were chosen based on educational level, volunteer experience and experience working with middle school-age children.

For many of them, the experience is providing them an insight into how schools operate as they attempt to decide in which direction to focus their careers.

"I like working with the kids," McGuiness said. "I want to go into counseling, and this is a helping profession along the same lines."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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