Providing Critical and Intense Mentoring Resources for Vulnerable Middle School Youth: Toward an Effective and Holistic Mentoring Framework

Submitted March, 2024 by:

Karen Miner Romanoff, JD, PhD, Board Co-President, The Arthur Project
Jessica Greenawalt, LCSW, PhD, Executive Director, The Arthur Project

As we continue to work to provide essential resources for our most vulnerable youth, mentoring programs have grown as one potential solution. The research explaining which aspects of mentoring are most important to positive outcomes has also grown and provides a somewhat complicated roadmap for mentoring organizations. Issues such as the length and intensity of relationships, the strength of relationship, goal attainment, the importance of mentor and mentee shared experiences and interests, cognitive skills building, healing, social justice and antiracists frames, and the inclusion of family and community and social networks as natural mentors have all emerged as important to positive mentee outcomes. The overarching need for robust and continuous mentor training and supervision also emerges as a critical concern. The Arthur Project – a New York City based therapeutic mentoring program – has successfully incorporated and assessed impact in these areas. These practices and evaluation results offer opportunities to codify best practices for mentoring organizations.

As The Arthur Project (TAP) strives to be evidence-based by design while being swiftly responsive to TAP’s communities’ unique needs. TAP serves youth and families in historically under resourced NYC neighborhoods. TAP necessarily collects data on an ongoing basis. However, in its sixth year, TAP engaged in a more formal year-long program evaluation to measure its outcomes. The results illustrate that TAP can act as a national model for therapeutic middle school mentoring that:

  1. Cultivates youths’ social emotional wellness and mental health
  2. Increases academic engagement
  3. Provides youth with leadership, goal achievement, problem-solving and communication skills to reach their full potential
  4. Provides the skills to successfully transition to high school
  5. Fosters family engagement through the Education Advocacy Program
  6. Encourages culturally responsive community and civic engagement
  7. Applies an antiracist, social justice lens to mentoring in furtherance of awareness and attunement to wider social impacts and social change

Empowering youth through intensive, school-based therapeutic mentoring requires rigorous programming, mentor training and supervision, dedication, and collaboration. It requires a “what works” model of fluidity that means collecting data on a regular basis and making changes in real time to further support our youth.

The Who: Clinicians-in-Training

While TAP’s evaluation confirms the efficacy of the model, it also compels the need for social work students who have had prior experience with vulnerable populations. In order to assure that youth are fully supported, The Arthur Project prioritizes prior experience and provides multiple layers of mentor supervision. Building bonds, trust, and strong relationships requires a dedicated team of mentors and professionals who have skills and empathy, who possess critical self-awareness, and who work to disrupt traditional hierarchical, oppressive relationships. Social work clinicians-in-training are dedicated to devoting hundreds of hours while applying what they are learning under close supervision of licensed social workers.

The What and Where: Structured, Responsive, School-Based Programming

School-based mentoring provides a benefit for mentees in that a comfortable and supportive space is accessible to them. Focusing on relationship building, trust, bonds, safe spaces, and mutual interests are all precursors to building youths’ socioemotional strengths. At The Arthur Project, mentors and mentees overwhelmingly reported that they felt close, could talk about anything, felt supported, and listened to. Survey and forum groups results illustrated that TAPs holistic and integrated programming resulted in significant increases in key socioemotional skills. Further, 85% of TAP teachers reported that TAP students improved their academic engagement. 

Structured and intentional partnerships with whole families emerged as another critical component to successful mentoring relationships at TAP.  Partnering with families and helping them negotiate their school’s administration and processes, was essential to better school outcomes – 72% of parents reported that TAP improved their relationships with the school administrators and teachers, another vital relationship to positive youth outcomes.

The How: Focus on Racial Justice 

Consistent with other research, The Arthur Project found that mentors should have experiences and interests that resonate with their mentees. Even then, training about social identities, political and economic challenges, reciprocal relationships, and racial justice leads to more open dialogue and more opportunities for healing. Approaching mentoring from a social work frame, TAP necessarily incorporates training and oversight through healing-centered and trauma informed lenses. 

The Why: An Opportunity to Advance Equity in Mental Health 

The Arthur Project (TAP) is a highly structured, school and community-based therapeutic mentoring program focused on inspiring and empowering middle school youth. It exists to meet the mental health needs of high-risk middle school youth. Equitable access to mental health services for young people, especially Black and Latinx/o youth, is more important than ever in the face of today’s youth mental health crisis. According to the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey, from 2011 to 2021, the rates of youth who persistently felt sad or hopeless increased from 21 percent to 29 percent for teen boys, and from 36 percent to 57 percent for teen girls. Further exacerbating the mental health crisis among youth is the public health crisis of racism. The CDC states that racism can negatively impact mental health and contribute to unequal access to resources and services, including mental health care. According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, young Black people have experienced an increase in suicide attempts, with suicide rates among young Black people increasing 37% between 2018 and 2021. 

TAP sees the middle school years as a critical time to invest in the mental health and care of our young people. The presence of an engaging, school-based system for students to access mental health services can be a game-changer for a community. We focus on middle school because it is a time of intense social and emotional change. Research shows that many of the goals of mentoring, such as increased resilience, perseverance, and self-actualization, are optimized during middle school years. Our program cultivates youth’s emotional wellness and mental health while also destigmatizing mental health services by integrating mental health and mentoring.

More specifically, we work with middle schools in communities that are severely under resourced, as indicated by either a high overall poverty rate in the Census tract(s); a Title I school status (indicating number of families receiving free lunch); and/or a Community School designation (indicating a history of need in the school). TAP’s staff partner closely with school personnel to identify students who exhibit chronic absenteeism or other indicators of academic disengagement, such as low grades, behavioral challenges in the classroom or unmet mental health and/or social emotional needs (e.g. Conduct Disorder, PTSD, Anxiety and Depression). 

A Note on Validity of Program Evaluations:

The importance of conducting an evaluation even when a randomized control evaluation is simply not feasible is clear. Program evaluations are vital to TAPs continuous improvement model. “[E]xperiments are not always appropriate or feasible…” for all evaluations (Brooks, et al, 2019). Further, in the social sciences, researchers agree that it is difficult to attribute causality through evaluations (Hind, 2010). Instead, Brooks, et al. (2019) argue that evaluations that are useful for practitioners’ focus, not on a particular evaluation method, but on the decisions that the organization needs to make based upon the data collected. For TAP, this evaluation had several important purposes, among them determining the extent to which the youth were experiencing anxiety, depression or posttraumatic stress, whether the youth mentees and mentors perceived social emotional and cognitive skills growth, and whether caregivers, teachers and school data indicated greater academic engagement. Consequently, for organizations like TAP, utilizing theoretical propositions and well-established research in support and comparing their evaluation results with national and state data is enough to illustrate TAP’s immediate outcomes. Domains include race, income level, school quality, attendance, and individual characteristics such as trauma and whether the youth has an IEP or emotional or behavioral diagnoses or classification. Local, state and federal level outcomes include high school graduation, income potential, illegal drug use and justice system involvement. Important to remember, these outcomes intersect and can be difficult to fully untangle with a linear, causal analysis.

This evaluation confirms the efficacy of TAPs program model and can act as a national standard for middle school youth mentoring. For the full evaluation, please email To discuss The Arthur Project or it’s model, please contact