A path with promise

[Editor’s note: A recent story highlighted Partners Unlimited, a local mentoring program (“It takes a village,” Feb. 12 Xpress). Here, we consider how mentoring fits into a broader community effort to help local students graduate.]

At times, the world seems to offer each of us a multitude of different paths — some more positive than others. And once a choice is made, the odds of continuing in that direction grow ever greater.

For 12-year-old Cordaro Mills, any number of paths are there for the taking. The sixth-grader with the elusive smile was transferred from Asheville Middle School to an alternative learning program housed at the Randolph Learning Center, a former elementary school on Montford Avenue. He’s one of fewer than a dozen students in a classroom for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who have proven disruptive in the traditional school setting.

By all accounts, Cord is as bright as can be, yet his reading skills tested at below grade level. That made him eligible to be paired with a mentor who’s trying to steer him toward making choices that will lead him to college — as well as helping him with his reading.

“If we can get his attitude and disciplinary things in order, he can succeed,” declares Benjamin Watkins, who’s been mentoring Cord for about a year now.

Be cool, stay in school

In the 2001-02 school year, 465 students in grades 9-12 dropped out of Buncombe County schools, according to state statistics; 61 of their counterparts in the much smaller Asheville system did the same. Buncombe County’s 6.05 percent dropout rate is higher than the state’s (5.25 percent); the Asheville City Schools came in at 4.58 percent.

To improve those statistics, the Asheville-Buncombe Education Coalition, which helped Cord find his mentor, is dedicated solely to making sure students in the two school systems graduate from high school — and so stand a better chance of success in the adult world.

“It’s an issue in our community that we need to look at,” asserts Meg White, the coalition’s executive director. “It becomes a community’s problem when a child does not graduate from high school.”

A group of local volunteers resolved to tackle the problem and conducted extensive research before launching the Education Coalition as a nonprofit in 2001. The coalition links students in the Asheville City and Buncombe County schools with other local nonprofit agencies that provide mentoring and tutoring — Partners Unlimited, Big Brothers Big Sisters (which works with Cord), and the YMCA are among the 20 involved.

Besides identifying students who are reading below their grade level, the Education Coalition also recruits and trains those mentors and tutors and provides them with educational materials. The nonprofit focuses on helping students become better readers, notes White, because so much of a student’s success in any number of subjects depends on mastery of the written word.

The approach seems to be working. According to results reported by independent evaluators, the average reading-achievement scores for the 90 students served through the Education Coalition improved by one to two reading levels last year; a control group of students who weren’t helped by the coalition showed no evident gains, White reports.

Encouraging results, to be sure, but the coalition’s ultimate aim is far more ambitious: Helping the two local school systems achieve the highest graduation rates in the state (among comparably sized systems) by 2010. In the 2000-01 school year, Asheville had the 19th highest dropout rate among 55 similarly sized systems; Buncombe County had the eighth-highest rate among 11 comparable systems, White reports.

One stumbling block to reaching that goal is having enough mentors and tutors to go around. In the current school year, the Education Coalition has linked 308 students in the Asheville City and Buncombe County schools with mentors, tutors or both. But 162 other students are still waiting for help. All told, the coalition is seeking 100 mentors and 100 tutors to volunteer their time (see box).

“What we need more of is what we call ‘human capital’ –people to work with these students,” comments White.

One source of volunteers is local employers, who agree to give their employees time off each week to mentor or tutor students. Participating employers include the Asheville Altitude, the Asheville City Schools central office, the National Climatic Data Center, Mission St. Joseph’s Health System and the law firm of Van Winkle, Buck, Wall, Starnes & Davis. (Mentors serve as friends and positive role models, meeting with a student at least once a week. Tutors provide one-on-one coaching, emphasizing reading, at least five hours a week. Watkins is Cord’s mentor, though he also helps the boy with his reading.)

Adults aren’t the only ones who see the need for these services. Cord himself requested a mentor, and his teacher, Richard Charlton, estimates that 85 to 95 percent of the students at the Randolph Learning Center want one, too.

Setting an example

Benjamin Watkins works as operations planning officer at the National Climatic Data Center; he gets time off from work to meet with Cord Mills at least once a week during the school day. When he can, Watkins also watches Cord play point guard for the Celtics, a city recreation league basketball team based at the West Asheville Community Center.

Although the Education Coalition program emphasizes reading, Watkins understands that it’s not just a matter of improving skill levels; other factors must also be addressed. As pastor of the H.B. Ferguson Missionary Baptist Church in Asheville, Watkins believes it’s important for African-American men like himself to mentor members of the younger generation, such as Cord. Another goal is helping bring African-Americans who live in public housing — which he sees as almost its own subcommunity — into the larger community fabric of Asheville. For example, Cord — who lives in both worlds — is struggling to learn that behavior (such as cursing) that’s OK within the public-housing community isn’t acceptable in the larger community, says Watkins.

“It just seemed like there’s a problem we need to put more time and attention on,” Watkins reflects.

And though Watkins grew up in rural Georgia, he says he can empathize with Cord’s situation, adding, “To me, it’s about making a difference, taking the time.”

On a day in late January, I join Watkins on a visit to Cord’s school; we wait at one side of the classroom for a few minutes while Charlton lectures his kids for having gotten out of line on a trek to Pack Memorial Library.

“Y’all give your teacher a hard time?” Watkins asks Cord jokingly, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder as the two leave the classroom and head down the hallway.

“Yeah,” Cord replies softly.

In a room off the school library, the pair say they both enjoy math — although the reason Cord asked for a mentor was for help with reading.

“He doesn’t like reading, but he’s a good reader,” Watkins says affectionately.

A moment later, Watkins asks Cord, “What’s the biggest thing we’ve been trying to work on?” The boy ponders the question, then (with another assist from Watkins) replies, “My behavior.”

As we chat, Cord’s behavioral issues seem well in hand, except for a flicker of irritation when I ask a question that’s phrased only slightly differently than one he’s already answered.

Watkins, meanwhile, reveals that he himself grew up in an environment where it wasn’t unusual for someone to raise his voice.

“It’s not anything wrong with [Cord], but he has to recognize that he has to deal with the broader world,” Watkins explains.

With his mentor’s help, Cord made the sixth-grade honor roll earlier this school year; he’s also become a Duke University booster after watching a Duke basketball game on TV.

“I think you can go to Duke,” Watkins tells Cord.

“I think I can,” Cord says, smiling.

Want to help?

The Asheville-Buncombe Education Coalition is looking for 100 mentors and 100 tutors to volunteer their time with students in the Asheville City and Buncombe County schools. The Education Coalition screens and trains volunteers with an emphasis on cultural sensitivity, reports Executive Director Meg White.

To sign up or to find out more, call 211 or (828) 236-1228. You can also e-mail White at mwhite@abeducationcoalition.org.

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