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National Mentoring Month highlights importance, benefits of mentorship

National Mentoring Month highlights importance, benefits of mentorship

Basehor-Linwood Unified School District 458 has welcomed volunteers into their schools for several years. It was around 1999, when Tammy Potts…then district coordinator of the school’s volunteer program, decided to take it one step further. That is when the Basehor-Linwood Mentors and Care Cats program was born.

“When we started, the word mentoring was not even a word that people understood,” Potts said.

January is National Mentoring Month, designed to raise awareness of the importance of mentoring, particularly youth mentoring. According to Youth.gov, mentoring can help increase high school graduation rates, lower high school dropout rates, and improve relationships with parents, teachers, and peers.

Potts was the district director for the Basehor-Linwood Mentors and Care Cats program and provided academic support for Basehor-Linwood virtual school. She retired in December 2023. Heather Shue worked with Potts for about six months before Potts retired. She is now the director.
The program started with adult mentors only. These mentors came into the classroom to spend time with students one-on-one or in small groups. A year later, after hearing from two elementary school teachers about wanting to bring high school kids into their classrooms to serve as peer mentors to younger students, Potts came up with Care Cats.

“At that point it was just an idea in my head,” she said. “We sat down with counselors at that time to go over what we wanted. It was a great collaboration. It brought together the grade school and high school in a truly unique way.”

Care Cats is a program for juniors and seniors that allows them to get school credit while spending an hour about every other school day on site as a mentor in a classroom. The students can mentor kids as young as Pre-K.

The students interested in being a Care Cat fill out an application every semester and get to request an age range, a teacher and school. The Care Cat is then placed in a class and teachers can choose to assign the Care Cat with a student for a one-on-one role or to work with a group of students.

Shue said she has seen Care Cats in action and hears the elementary school students say they look for these kids to be in their classrooms and when they are not, they miss them.

“They really do believe they’re rockstars and superheroes,” she said.

She said it is a full-circle program because many kids who are paired with a Care Cat want to become a Care Cat themselves. When the Care Cats are seniors, they go to the school where they have been a mentor and walk with their caps and gowns down the grade school hallways while the school plays Pomp and Circumstance over the intercom and the younger students cheer them on. Not only is it a moving experience, Shue said, but the tradition has helped the district’s graduation rate.

If an adult wants to serve as a mentor in the schools, they are carefully screened and undergo background checks before participating in training and being placed in a classroom. Mentors can either be paired one-on-one with a student, work with students in a small group or serve the entire classroom.

“I know that most people realize that when you give, it really does fill your cup up personally,” Shue said. “It’s the feel good you get out of helping others. That’s the biggest part, but it’s also about strengthening our communities. If an adult has time to be a part of a program like this, that’s definitely one way you can impact your community.”

Last semester, Basehor-Linwood had approximately 56 adult mentor volunteers, which Shue said is about the average. There also were 150 high school students volunteering as Care Cats. In total, mentees received 2,700 exposures to a mentor on a regular basis. The number of exposures is the number of times the mentor visits the classroom.

Every April, the district awards between two and four college scholarships to Care Cats, funded through business donations. Shue said the district is looking at how they can utilize community partnerships with businesses and organizations to further boost the program.

Shue said she has seen academics and attitude improve through this program.

“Just overall, it’s a boost in a child’s sense of security,” she said. “A lot of times our adults are working in certain situations where the child has been through something significant that they’re trying to overcome, or really struggling in some way. That’s when you really see a big impact.”

Oswego USD 504 is brand new to the mentoring world. This past fall, Kali Swisher, a school counselor at Oswego Junior-Senior High School, and Brittany Payne, a school counselor at Neosho Heights Elementary, helped get Connections to Success running.

The goal of this mentoring program is to connect junior high students with positive adult models in the community.

“We noticed there was a large correlation between students who were not involved in extracurricular activities and their success and attendance at school,” Swisher said. “We wanted to help fill that gap by providing students with another positive role model in their life that is not connected to the school or their family.”

Swisher said junior high is a tough age, so they wanted to target that age group by providing extra support.
Although the program is less than a year old, the district has seen positive responses from parents, mentors and mentees. The mentors are strongly encouraged to support their mentees throughout the year. They send cards, emails, attend sporting events and more, creating a safe space for students to feel supported.

“The mentees also really enjoy engaging with their mentors,” Swisher said. “We are hearing them talk about the program to their peers, excited about the correspondence with their mentors. They really love seeing someone in the stands (or audience) who are there just to support them.”

Along with providing that support throughout the year, there are four scheduled events for 2024, about once a quarter. There is a different theme and activities each time they meet.

Right now, the program is open to students in sixth through eighth grade, but they intend to open it up to high school and elementary school students in the future.

Potts received a call within the past couple of months about Basehor-Linwood Mentors and Care Cats program. Teachers at Lansing USD 469 wanted to implement a similar program in their district and now have the Lansing Lions Leaders. Other districts have also reached out to Potts.

She would love to see mentoring programs implemented across the state.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Potts said. “But it is going to be fun and worth it.”

Posted: Jan 25, 2024,
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