By Emily Thomson
No longer is a high school diploma adequate for meeting the challenges of the 21st century work force.
Iowa’s educational system has been working to ensure that high school students are prepared for college by offering Advanced Placement classes, dual credit with community colleges and ACT prep sessions.
However, 12 percent of Iowa’s teenagers never graduate from high school; they also require attention.
Research that I completed recently suggests a strategy for supporting them.
Former at-risk students whom I interviewed indicated that e-mentoring helped them transition successfully from high school to the adult world and kept them from being part of the 12 percent.
In 2000, one Iowa high school at-risk program began a relationship with a local business to provide e-mentoring to at-risk high school students.
e-mail to connect adults to students.
According to the Iowa Paths Systems Change Project, it offers a “realistic way for busy adults and busy youths to build meaningful relationships.”
Researchers have demonstrated that youths who have positive relationships with adults are more likely to be productive, to avoid risky behaviors and to become successful adults themselves.
Each high school student in the at-risk program is paired with a mentor from the local business. Mentors are asked to make at least a school year commitment to the e-mentoring program.
The mentors are encouraged to e-mail their students at once per week during the school year and to discuss communication skills, work skills and personal situations. Mentors and students meet face-to-face three times during the school year.
Before having contact with students, mentors complete an orientation session to review the role of the mentor and the
expectations of e-mentoring.
They also learn ways to build relationships with teenagers and to maintain boundaries and confidentiality.
Iowa defines at-risk students as those in danger of failing to complete their educational programs.
From my interviews, I realized that their at-risk status had no relationship to their intelligence. Their school failures were instead connected to their own discomfort with school and to personal issues that kept them disengaged or absent from school.
Their experiences ranged from bullying and fights to shyness to divorce, substance abuse, incarceration, a parent’s death and pregnancy. Yet one of these students graduated early, another one with honors and a third completed all of the high school credits in one year.
All of them indicated their mentors were there when their parents couldn’t be.
One former student said, “I could run to [my mentor] anytime if I felt something was going downhill. The biggest one that sticks out was when my dad died. … She gave me somebody when the family wasn’t capable of actually being there in any aspect that I needed them … . I saw my mentor as probably the biggest impact on my coming to school and because I had somebody to talk to when I got there. I think there were a total of about five of us that if it weren’t for the e-mentoring program we would not have graduated.”
Those interviewed credited their mentors with helping them graduate from school, helping them gain confidence in themselves; helping them feel reassured of their decisions and helping them develop coping skills.
A well-designed, research-based e-mentoring appears to be an effective way to engage at-risk students in school and help them develop the attributes necessary for positive transition to adulthood. The cost of the program and the time commitment by the mentors appears small compared to the impact the relationship had on students.
E-mentoring would be an effective strategy for keeping kids in school and reducing the dropout rate in Iowa.
Emily Thomson has worked as a physical therapist with children with disabilities for 10 years at Grant Wood Area Education Agency and is currently coordinating the mentoring and induction program for area school districts.