The Importance of High-School Mentors

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.26.54 PMby Alyza Sebenius (the Atlantic)

In her job as a “dream director,” Jessica Valoris is tasked with unleashing the potential of disadvantaged students at an inner-city high school in Washington, D.C. Her employer, a New York-based nonprofit called The Future Project, embeds mentors like Valoris in public schools, characterizing her role as a “midwife of dreams” and “warrior of possibility.” The Atlantic’s video team has documented the power that mentors like Valoris can have at a defining juncture in the lives of disadvantaged young people: high school.
Serious risks like homelessness, suspension, early parenthood, and a lack of academic confidence threaten to derail poor, young Americans on their path toward high-school graduation. Yet stories like this one, and a growing body of research—including a study last year by America’s Promise Alliance, which found that students with social support are more likely to re-engage with school in the face of adversity—suggest that the United States should invest broadly in mentorship.
“Just as the federal government can see something like health care as a basic need, mentoring should be that, too,” said David Shapiro, the CEO of The National Mentoring Partnership, a founding partner of America’s Promise Alliance that, among other things, advocates for federal funding. “Having consistent support, outside home is essential.” Experts emphasize that mentorship entails much more than offering compassion to a child; mentors serve a range of needs, from ensuring access to food and other basic resources to setting academic expectations. But how scalable are its current models?

Formal mentorship is currently supported by philanthropy and federal agencies including the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Corporation for National and Community Service. In the fiscal year 2015, OJJDP granted $90 million to mentoring organizations to support at-risk youth across the country—a sum sufficient to cover hundreds of thousands of students but not sufficient for need, according to Shapiro.

But other limitations, beyond funding challenges, make it difficult to expand such programs. For one, mentorship programs aren’t always effective. (In some cases they can even prove harmful, particularly when it comes to mentoring relationships that terminate prematurely.) For another, a prevailing thread among education experts today is that a single mentor isn’t sufficient. “We’re too enamored with the idea of the heroic volunteer who swoops in,” said Marc Freedman, the author of the influential 1999 book, The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Volunteerism.

Indeed, education experts and nonprofits are embracing the idea that a broad web of formal and informal mentors is key to successfully serving young people. “This changes the conversation from ‘You have to be everyone to someone,’ to ‘You have to be someone to everyone,’” said Jonathan Zaff, the executive director of the Center for Promise, echoing an argument recently put forth by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In an email, Putnam, who in his book notes that privileged youth are two to three times more likely to have an informal mentor outside of their family, said that “kids from working-class homes need more caring adults in their lives.” Disadvantaged students, he said, often lack access to the range of role models available to their more privileged peers—such as coaches, clergy, neighbors, or family friends. Absent these advisors, underprivileged students may be deprived of the kinds of information necessary for navigating and thriving in large institutions like colleges—for exercising what Putnam described as “savvy.”
Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, cited a difference in perceptions of the future between privileged students and their counterparts, many of whom are at a major disadvantage because they do not believe they are “post-secondary material.” Adults, she observed, need to help underprivileged students believe that they can go to college. “The idea that you have a future in higher education does not exist,” she said of some communities.

Mentors are just one form of role models on campus that can shape student outcomes. School counselors represent another tier of non-teacher adults who can make a large difference for students: A 2013 study correlated the addition of a single guidance counselor at a given school with a 10 percentage point increase in four-year-college-going rates at the school. Still, like mentorship programs, school counseling suffers from limited funding.

And differences in resources for such services—access to private counselors or private schools with smaller counseling ratios among advantaged students—can further perpetuate inequality. “This is contradictory to the fundamental idea that education ought to be the source of social mobility,” said Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an expert on college admissions.

“Schools require better articulation and protection of the roles that counselors play.”
A guidance counselor in an average American school is responsible for over 470 students, significantly higher than the 250-student maximum recommended by The American School Counselor Association. (California is home to some of the highest ratios, with 945 students per counselor on average.) A 2009 study revealed that the median ratio at public high schools was roughly three times that at private ones. These ratios suggest there is little interaction between counselors and their students in public schools, and because students with extreme situations (such as legal or health problems) can demand significant attention and disproportionately crowd out a counselor’s schedule, the amount of one-on-one time available to students is often extremely inconsistent.

Meanwhile, according to some educators, counselors shouldn’t focus strictly on getting kids into college. Nancy E. Hill, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, suggested that although both college-bound students and their non-college-bound counterparts are under an incredible amount of stress to figure out their futures, the former get much more support than the latter. “Guidance programs largely focus on college, and students not focused on college feel left out,” she noted, suggesting another reason for increasing the staff and expertise in Guidance Departments. Valoris, the dream director, advocates customizing post-high-school plans to fit student needs, too, whether or not those needs include postsecondary education. “Personally I don’t think college is for everyone. We get pushed into going to college blindly, without a plan,” she said. Instead, she asks her students: “What is your dream for yourself and how will college support you in doing that?”
Other problems with the current system of high-school guidance counseling include a lack of sufficient counselor training related to college access and success—an issue raised by Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative—and the de-prioritization of guidance counselors’ time and responsibilities. “‘School counselor’ is currently a catch-all for a lot of different responsibilities,” said Lindsay Page, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education. She described responsibilities ranging from course scheduling, crisis management, and discipline to college counseling and recommendation writing. Sometimes counselors are even asked to take on tasks far outside their job description, such as substitute teaching and even lunchroom monitoring. “Schools require better articulation and protection of the roles that counselors play,” she said.

Savitz-Romer, the education lecturer at Harvard, advocates for training principals to better utilize their counselors, in part by explicitly evaluating school performance based on student outcomes—and not simply based on tests, but on postsecondary plans. “Schools are primarily seen as places of academic instruction,” she said. “The more we hold schools accountable for postsecondary outcomes, the more they will work on their own systems of preparation.” She envisions a world in which every high school has a post-secondary leadership team, one with the same resources as instructional teams.

ALYZA SEBENIUS is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic.