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Emerson’s mentor program on thin ice

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Tuesday January 15, 2002

With the economy in trouble and the state education budget in question, administrators at Emerson School are fighting to maintain a successful, three-year-old mentoring program that serves almost half the school’s student body. 

“This school has shown what a little bit of money can do to mobilize massive resources around us,” said Terri Waller, Healthy Start resources coordinator at Emerson. “We’re hoping that in this next budget year, the governor and legislature continue to show financial support for these programs.” 

With a four-year, $450,000 Healthy Start grant from the state, Emerson began planning the mentoring program, and a host of other support programs at the school, five years ago. That grant ran out in June.  

A three-year, $75,000 state grant, called the Academic Volunteer and Mentor Service Program Grant, has paid for staffing, training and materials for the program since the 1999-2000 school year. The grant runs out at the end of this year. 

Gov. Gray Davis’ budget proposal, released last week, retains the mentor grant program at its current level of $10 million per year. But, with the state’s $12.2 billion deficit, the future of the program and many others like it, is unclear, according to Waller. 

Given the uncertainty, Emerson is preparing to approach area foundations and corporations for grants to keep the mentoring program, and other support services – including nutritional, mental health and after school programs – in place. 

Emerson’s Academic Volunteer and Mentor Program coordinates the work of about 130 mentors, drawn from several local institutions, including UC Berkeley, Caltrans, the First Presbyterian Church, Redwood Gardens, a retirement community, and the Oakland-based Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. The federation is a co-sponsor of a nationwide mentoring initiative called the Jewish Coalition for Literacy. 

The program serves 137 students, and program coordinator Monica Santos hopes to provide mentors for 13 more students by the end of the year. Mentors provide one-on-one tutoring, focusing heavily on math and reading, both during the day and after school.  

Administrators, teachers, mentors, and parents, like Velisa Parks, mother of second grader Trae Casey, say the program has been effective.  

Parks said the program has been effective for her son who has had difficulty learning to read. “He enjoys reading now, where last year he really didn’t enjoy it. It was a chore for him.” 

Bara Samuels, one of Casey’s two mentors, said she also gets something from the experience. “Just knowing that I’m helping is satisfaction,” she said. 

Wendy Dorband, a former middle school and high school teacher who now mentors second grader Shannon Harris, said the Emerson program is important because it targets students at a young age. 

“You really have to do intervention early,” she said, “because you really can’t teach a kid in middle school or high school how to read.” 

Mentors, teachers and administrators said part of the reason for the program’s success is a high degree of organization. 

“Monica and her team are great,” said Emerson Principal Rebecca Cheung. “They’re very well-organized. They’re on top of things.”  

Santos and her staff, consisting of two Americorps volunteers, maintain binders for each student, complete with a profile of the pupil’s needs, provide continuous feedback to mentors and coordinate curriculum and schedules with teachers. 

Santos said it took some time to win the support of teachers, who are often leery of support staff pulling children out of their classrooms. But now, she said, teachers are highly cooperative, providing mentors with materials for individual students and volunteering their time to train large groups of mentors.  

Jamie Carlson, a first grade teacher at Emerson, said program staff’s willingness to work with teachers on scheduling issues has won their support. “They’re very flexible,” she said. “We’re very respected as individuals.” 

Carlson also had high praise for the mentors themselves. “They really come ready to interact, and be there for the children,” she said. 

Santos said she hopes to boost the work of mentors with more training. She said that providing teachers with stipends for the time they spend coaching tutors would be particularly helpful. 

But that, of course, requires funding. And starting next year, Emerson, and thousands of schools across the state, may have trouble finding state dollars.