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School mentoring program struggles for survival

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday October 23, 2002

An award-winning mentoring service at Emerson Elementary School faces an uncertain future after the state cut funding for the program in September. 

Emerson’s Academic Volunteer and Mentor Program, which provides math, reading and homework help to more than 100 students, has survived for two months on $13,000 in grants from three area foundations and $5,000 in support from a separate Emerson after-school program. 

But program coordinator Monica Santos, who is working furiously to win more grants, said the mentoring service needs $50,000 to $60,000 more to continue at full strength beyond December. 

If the funding does not materialize, she said, the school will have to let her go, losing the program’s one full-time staffer. Emerson would attempt to continue the program, Santos said, with teachers and two part-time Americorps volunteers helping with administration. But Santos warned that the number of students served, and the level of support for mentors, could decline. 

“I think it would be a different program,” she said. 

The service, which pairs struggling students with mentors from UC Berkeley, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, Caltrans and other organizations, started in October 1999 and was funded by a three-year state grant that provided $75,000 annually. 

This year, Emerson planned to apply to the state’s Academic Volunteer and Mentor Service office, which provided the initial grant, for a three-year renewal.  

But in September Gov. Gray Davis, faced with a $24 billion shortfall, signed a final budget that spared education on the whole, but cut $4.3 million from the state’s $10 million volunteer and mentor service office. 

As a result, the state is funding mentoring programs at 106 sites around California this year, compared to more than 200 last year, according to the Department of Education. 

The state’s volunteer and mentor service program, which still has $5.7 million to spend, has continued funding for programs in the midst of their three-year funding cycle. But California has turned down schools like Emerson that have finished a three-year cycle and are seeking a renewal.  

The state has also cut most one-year “phase out” grants for schools, like Berkeley’s Willard Middle School, that have already gone through a pair of three-year state funding cycles and are entering a seventh year. 

Berkeley Unified School District and Willard Middle School officials could not be reached for comment. But Rachael Flores, who runs the volunteer and mentor service office for the state, said Willard kept its program up and running this year through a partnership with Bay Area Community Resources, a non-profit group in Richmond. 

Emerson’s financial struggles come amid state recognition for the mentoring program. On Oct. 11, the California’s Secretary for Education Kerry Mazzoni acknowledged an Emerson mentor, 22 year-old Millie Lin, as one of three winners of the 2002 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Academic Volunteer & Mentor Service. 

The state selected the winners after receiving dozens of nominations from students served by the mentors. Alexandra Ho, then an eight year-old second grader at Emerson, nominated Lin last year. 

“I think my mentor deserves a reward because of all the hard work she has done so I could get smarter,” Ho wrote in a nominating essay. “She also deserves it because she teaches me cursive to get me ready for third grade.” 

Santos hopes that state recognition for the program will help win more foundation support. 

“With our program getting recognized, (it says) this is something valid,” she said. 

Lauren Edwards, a UC Berkeley sophomore who has served as a mentor for two years, said it would be “terrible” if funding cuts harmed the program. 

“This is putting money to good use,” she said. 

Interested parties can contact the mentoring program at 883-5247. 


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