Meant to Mentor

Life-changing programs are born out of need, and given the demonstrated success of the Parent Mentor Program in other schools throughout the state, The ACE Project was excited to join forces with the Southwest Organizing Project and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association to meet this need in Riverdale/Dolton School District #148. “Parents and teachers co-existed and worked very well together as a team,” says Dedra Burnett, Director of Programs & Services in Chicago. “Teachers utilized the parents in small ways that were extremely important, such as in small group discussions, one-on-one attention, and helping to refocus students that had a difficult time staying on task.”

When The ACE Project chose Washington Elementary School in Riverdale and Lincoln Elementary School in Dolton as the pilot sites for the Parent Mentor Program, we weren’t sure how the parents in the district would react. Sure, we were able to engage parents as coaches for our after-school programs; however, this required parents to complete a minimum of 200 hours in the classroom over the course of a school year with ongoing training and evaluation expected from each mentor. Compared to our 6-8 week programs, the Parent Mentor Program was a significant commitment; still, as we have grown used to seeing, the ACE Team was ready to step up.

Take Denise Sanders, for example: after helping launch ACE at Washington Elementary as one of our first parent coaches, Coach Sanders agreed to lead the parent mentors at Washington by serving as the Parent Mentor Coordinator. Along with Delval DeSavieu, her counterpart at Lincoln Elementary, Coach Sanders tackled all the challenges that came with recruiting, mentoring, training, and supervising the team of local parents; moreover, she aced additional projects, like organizing a sock hop fundraiser, coordinating a peace circle, and planning other special learning activities for mentors.

“My experience leading other parents was exciting and challenging,” offers Coach Sanders, along with a list of critical lessons she learned by leading the implementation at Washington, including ways to improve communication particularly in working relationships. When asked what her future looks like after completing year 1, Coach Sanders confidently states her goal of becoming a social worker, going a step further by saying, “Someday I want to build an organization to help the parents communicate and build a better relationship with the kids. I want The ACE Project to expand in various locations in Chicago on the south and west side. I want the children to be comfortable with me and the parents so they will respect and trust us. I want everyone to work as one and help each other build a better community and become successful.”

Quite an outlook after just one year of the Parent Mentor Program! It sounds like it was meant to be, but what about the parent mentors themselves? What were their experiences like? We caught up with André Deyampert and Michelle Jefferson, who served at Lincoln Elementary, to determine how impactful the program was overall. Both parents mentioned the need to learn about the students one-on-one, citing how they found success through this strategy and suggesting that this type of attention should be standardized across all classrooms and schools to ensure students gain the knowledge, skills, and attitude necessary for positive youth development. “Each student has specific needs that need to be addressed,” says Coach Jefferson. “Some are challenging and sometimes overwhelming, but it’s a pleasure to see when they have grasped what you’re trying to teach them. Personally, I would love to see them develop and grow into productive, high achieving young men and women as they pursue their dreams and goals for their life.” We love-love the sound of that!

Aside from the benefit to students, the Parent Mentor Program was launched to build leaders in the home, the school and the community, and based on what our mentors tell us, it achieved just that! “Following my experience, immediately I realized teaching to be a place where I am needed,” shares Coach Deyampert. “Subsequently, I scurried down to the Illinois State Board of Education to obtain my professional license as a paraprofessional, Kindergarten through age 21. Now, my opportunities for the future are endless, and the door is now open for me to reach one and teach one, even if it’s only one.”

Our mentors did an exceptional job stepping up to the challenges provided by the Parent Mentor Program this year; even more impressive, many discovered new purpose in their lives based on their experiences, prompting action toward opportunities that engage youth, families, and communities. And that is really what it means to be a mentor, right? To lead by example and offer support to those setting their own path. We can’t wait to see what the Parent Mentor Program will mean to local parents next year.

Susan Klumpner