WNPR

Middle School Mentor Program in Connecticut Boasts Strong High School Graduation Rates

May 9, 2016

On a rainy April afternoon, middle schoolers filled the gym at Wexler Hall Community School in New Haven. 

Seventh-grader Brianna Jones was there with her friends, and her mentor, Hannah Alexander.

When asked what she likes about her afterschool mentor, the 13-year-old didn't pull any punches.

"It's like your mentor is your best friend, so you're, like, tutoring with your best friend. You're not tutoring with a stranger," Brianna said.

Many urban school districts struggle to graduate students from high school, but this mentorship program --which focuses on middle school students -- seems to be having an impact.

Twice a week, Brianna sits down in a classroom with Alexander to work on school stuff. On a recent day, they were going over math problems: fractions.

"I'm also gonna stop you right here, because look, you would have gotten nine over three which is three," Alexander said to Jones. "Negative three over three is the same thing as saying negative one."

"So I just could have said negative one plus..." Brianna said.

"Yeah."

Yale sophomore Alexander is one of 18 mentors at Yale who work with about 30 students at New Haven middle schools as part of the Jones Zimmerman Academic Mentorship Program, or J-Z AMP.

Brianna and Alexander are finishing up the first of a three-year commitment they've each made to work together as mentor and mentee.

In the program, each mentor takes on two students, and starting in sixth grade, meets with them twice a week for over two hours at a time. The goal is to provide academic support, but also help with social and emotional growth until the mentees finish middle school.

"To have this kind of relationship, especially two-to-one, you know, mentors working with kids, is really extraordinary," said Jodi Grant, executive director of the non-profit Afterschool Alliance.  She said it's more common for these programs to have eight-to-one ratios, and only last a semester, or year.

Sacred Heart University and Trinity College offer the program to middle school kids in Hartford and Bridgeport.

Data from J-Z AMP boasts a 90 percent graduation rate for kids who went through the program -- all of whom were below grade level when they started in sixth grade.