November 13, 2007

New mentoring effort planned in local schools

by K.C. Jaehnig


CARBONDALE, Ill. — A helping hand in middle school could mean a leg up in high school for some of the region's students.

Cynthia H. Sims, an assistant professor of workforce education and development at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will soon begin training high school teachers from Jackson and Perry counties how to work mentoring into their lesson plans so their students can guide and assist those in middle school.

"As high school students learn about career exploration, a way for them to continue to learn is to teach the middle school children," Sims said.

"It helps the older students understand the concepts while introducing the younger ones to new ideas."

The older students can also ease the transition from middle school to high school by telling the younger kids what to expect and sharing the coping skills that worked for them. Once the middle school students reach high school, the mentors become a friendly presence in a sea of strange faces.

"If the high school mentor has a university mentor, then that process continues up the scale," said Sims, who earlier this year began pairing SIUC students with area high schoolers to explore careers and prepare the high school students for college.

Sims' latest venture, which will run two years, is underwritten by a $16,000 grant from Learn and Serve America, a federal program designed to link public school education with community service. The lieutenant governor's office administers grants made in Illinois.

By law, all Illinois high school students must master certain skills and knowledge in seven key areas. Mentoring others involves all the basics in career development and social and emotional learning and touches on several academic areas, such as effective writing, listening and speaking, as well, Sims said.

"The students are increasing their verbal communication skills, their interpersonal skills, their leadership skills and their confidence — they get excited about mentoring because they feel like models, and if they're more engaged, they're more likely to stay in school," she noted.

In December, Sims will meet with representatives from the Regional Office of Education and interested teachers, students and volunteers to introduce the concept, demonstrate how it fits with the Illinois learning standards, talk about the kinds of activities that bring the concept to life, discuss partnerships with middle schools, and hammer out other planning details.

When spring semester starts, she will train 15 teachers in the nuts and bolts of this combination of service and learning.

"Once they're trained, it's up to them how they implement it," Sims said.

"If those 15 teachers could each teach one more, that would double the number of teachers involved. And the great thing about this is that because it's something you do as part of class, you don't really need to have money to make it work."