10/09/11 — Mentor program set for schools

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Mentor program set for schools

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 9, 2011 1:50 AM

It all started with some grumbling about the public schools.

But now, months later, a discussion about how to improve Goldsboro's inner city schools has turned into a group of volunteers preparing to be a part of the solution, to offer their time and energy to the students who need them the most.

Chuck Allen, mayor pro tem, admitted he had verbalized more than a few concerns about Goldsboro High School, his alma mater.

Last spring, Allen met with Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent, and then-city manager Joe Huffman, brainstorming about the situation, particularly in the central attendance area schools and proposed the city form a blue ribbon committee to talk about the problems and possible solutions.

Taylor had another idea -- not just talking about improving the schools, but doing something to improve them.

Allen agreed and pledged his support.

And that is how the mentoring program was born.

"Their challenge was to quit criticizing our schools and get involved," Allen says now.

Traditional school subjects was not where volunteers could make the most impact, Taylor said. Developing relationships with students and offering them a more personal connection was.

"We have 31 schools. Many of our kids need someone to look up to, to talk and communicate with, to give them encouragement ... make them feel connected to what they're doing," he said. "We want all of our kids when they graduate from high school to be contributing citizens. They look to role models."

"We talk about inner city kids all the time and I'm just going to label them (that) because I don't know what else to call them," Allen said. "But these are kids that are poor some of them, a lot of them come from the projects."

What also surprised him, he said, is the realization that some of the county's youths have never traveled outside of the city or county limits.

The discussion expanded to include others who might partner up on the effort. In addition to school officials and city council members, Communities in Schools, Franklin Baking Co. and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base also backed the idea, which Allen readily pointed out is not about tutoring.

"You're not going to be tutoring. You're going to be mentoring," he told a gathering at the first organizational meeting recently.

"Caring Friends," the moniker adopted for the initiative being rolled out initially in the central attendance area schools, will be a weekly or bi-weekly commitment officials would like to see spread across the county.

"Hopefully this thing will just bloom and we'll have all the mentors that we can handle and they'll be in all 31 of our schools," said Kim Copeland, lead literacy teacher for the district.

"The students need to know that people care," Mrs. Copeland said. "Talk with them. Mainly they need a big brother, a big sister, a positive role model that will show them that they care."

Being committed is the primary requirement asked of volunteers going into the schools. It's not about math skills or grammar skills, officials said, but rather demonstrating a commitment to supporting the county's young people.

"You are a positive role model, you are a friend, you are a coach, an adviser, a self-esteem builder, you are a career counselor, so to speak, you're an advocate for that student, you're an encourager, you are a cheerleader," Mrs. Copeland said. "You're probably going to be a really, really bright spot in that child's week because most times it's when our students come to school, we are a safe haven."

Sylvester Townsend can attest to that. The principal at Dillard Middle School said he sees it often -- youths struggling with a "dysfunctional background" of parents or family members on drugs or in jail.

"You've got to look at the whole picture of the child," he said. "I think the key to looking at a middle school child or any child, is creating the relationship piece. If you can make that connection and the child knows you're going to be there for the duration ...

"Most of the children that come to Dillard Middle School, they bring a lot of social baggage with them If you can get through the social baggage, those kids really want to learn."

Townsend said having adults show up consistently brings about a positive change in the life of a child.

"I really believe you all are making a difference," he told the gathering. "If someone's happy, they're going to learn.

"They need to see that regardless of what they see in their home, you folks are becoming a beacon that they can become something better than they're facing at home."

Robert Freeman, liaison between Seymour Johnson and the county schools, said he had witnessed that firsthand, having mentored a child for two years, from third through fifth grade. When it came time for the fifth-grade graduation, he was invited to attend and expressed how glad he was that he rearranged his schedule to do so.

The young man's mother was there, Freeman said, but the father was not. And years from now, he shared, there will be two things that boy will always remember -- that his father did not attend the graduation, and that Freeman had.

"Being a mentor, you're going to touch lives," he said. "It will mean so much, they'll never forget ... and it will be about sowing positive things."

Thirty-seven people from the base responded to an e-mail Freeman sent out for volunteers, he said.

Airman Craig Smith was one of them.

"It's a great experience when you get to touch the (life of) youth," he said. "This is one opportunity for each one of us to touch someone's life and their goals, where they're going."

Charles Brogden of Franklin Baking also signed on to serve. The father of three sons -- in elementary, middle and high school -- said he had never done anything like this but looked forward to helping wherever he could.

"I'm hoping this is going to not only help somebody else but help me, help me understand the differences in my children," he said.

Tonya Faison, appointed principal at Goldsboro High School this year, had aspired to return to the school where she initially taught in 1998.

She expressed appreciation for those who have already volunteered to serve as mentors and others who will be added in the future.

"In talking with our students, they're very bright, they're eager," she said. "A lot of them just need to know that people do care about them and that they do have people fighting for them and want them to succeed."

For more information on the "Caring Friends" initiative, call Mrs. Copeland at 731-5900.