For more than a decade, the Foundation for Excellent Schools has helped students from all over the country improve performance. They’ve done this through programs that focus on mentoring, goal-setting and early awareness of college.
Recently, the Cornwall-based organization expanded its expertise to include fifty Vermont schools.
VPR’s Beth Schmidt reports.
It’s Friday afternoon at the tiny elementary school in Benson.
In a cramped classroom, just around the corner from the Principal’s office, a group of fifth graders read to special needs preschoolers.
(Sound of laughing kids, older child reading a book to younger kids.)
The two groups of children seem to feed off each other. The little ones revel in the one-on-one attention. You can see that they feel important, that they sense someone cares about them and wants to spend time with them.
For the older kids, it’s clear that they, too, feel important and that they enjoy being role models. This – plain and simple – is mentoring.
And it’s what the Foundation for Excellent Schools, or FES, says is the backbone of what they do.
(Dalton) “The hope is to help each and every student within the school take one more step.”
Rick Dalton is FES’s President. He says it’s essential that we have high expectations for all students, not just the college-bound ones.
(Dalton) “The passion is to level the playing field. The passion is to make sure that every kid has opportunities, that every kid has the chance to walk through as many doors as possible.”
Back at Benson, Christy Gonzalez, a college senior, leads a group of eighth graders in another form of mentoring.
(Sound of girls talking in background.)
“I wanna know what you enjoy the best?”
“We play basketball, we play kickballÂ¿”
“So you just like hanging out with your mentors, it doesn’t even matter?”
Gonzalez says that when college students mentor schoolchildren it makes a difference.
(Gonzalez) “I know what it’s like to be that student who people think they’re not gonna go anywhereÂ¿. It’s really like a personal thing. It’s my mission to make sure that nobody gets left behind the way that I could have been.”
Rick Dalton says that children who’re exposed to FES programs earn better grades, they get in trouble less often and they score higher on standardized tests.
Dalton says much of this progress is the direct result of mentoring, a process he compares to planting and nurturing a seedling. A process that Principal Gary Netsch says has helped Benson blossom into a vibrant school.
(Netsch) “It was like we were in this kind of jam and then all of a sudden FES kind of just appeared and it just happened to be there at the time we happened to really need it. I think that’s as much as why it works as any of it. The timing, we were in such need.”
FES’s early awareness college program is one of it’s most popular.
(Sound of kids and adults milling about and getting organized.)
On a recent Saturday morning, forty middle schoolers gathered in front of Adirondack House on the Middlebury campus. They’re here for FES’s annual Middlebury College Day. This is their chance, not only to hang out with real live college kids, but in a sense to walk in their shoes.
(Middlebury students) “I’m HannaÂ¿ I’m JillÂ¿. We’re gonna be your counselorsÂ¿ Anybody hungry? Should we go eat? Ok let’s go, that way.”
After lunch the kids take part in a scavenger hunt. Along the way they stop to explore a dormitory.
(Middlebury student) “Okay we’re going to the third floor. Can everyone make it?”
The majority of these middle schoolers have never been on a college campus. And most of their parents haven’t gone to college.
To the kids, today is fun and games. To FES, it’s a chance to mentor, a chance to help children raise their own expectations, to take one more step.
(Middlebury student) “You should tell your teachers, say to them, ‘I want to try some acting. Can we act out one of the books we’re reading?'”
As the group sits in the bleachers at a Middlebury hockey game, it’s obvious they’re not here to watch the game. The kids are mesmerized by their college mentors. They imitate them. They hang on their every word. They say, when they get older, they want to be like them.
And that is music to FES’s ears.
(Sound of kids and mentors performing their cheer at the hockey game.)
“I’m still waiting for the cheer here folks.”
“Oh you want the cheer?”
“Belinda’s our leader, take us home”
“We’re not number 5Â¿”
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Beth Schmidt in Middlebury.