2018-01-18 / Front Page

Melrose mentorship program helps students bond, improve social skills

BY RYAN GIBBS


— Courtney Hancur, program coordinator — Courtney Hancur, program coordinator Students with trouble in the classroom have teachers to aid them.

School athletes have coaches.

Fledgling musicians have band directors

And stumped high school seniors have guidance counselors.

Sometimes, however, you just need a friend.

That’s where the Jamestown school’s mentorship program comes into play.

Courtney Hancur coordinates the weekly respite from classwork for students to connect with members of the community. The program pairs students with adults who share the same interests. The goal is to provide a role model or authority figure to children who need an influential, trustworthy person in their life.

“It’s kind of an extra friend for the child,” Hancur said. “An adult they can look up to and talk to.”

Revitalizing the program

The program has been at Melrose School for four years. Students typically are recommended by their teachers or parents for a variety of reasons. Some may have difficulty bonding with peers. Others may have one parent at home. And in some cases, students just need to connect with someone who relates to them, whether through sports, arts or board games. Along with building smiles, these meetings grow social skills. The pair meet for an hour each week during the school day with free range to plan their session.

“It’s really time for them to hang out,” Hancur said. “We have some children who are really interested in art, so we have the two of them meet in the art room. They’ll color together and talk. Through pictures, they’ll describe how they are feeling that day.”

Hancur, the district’s outreach coordinator, has led the program since 2013. There was a similar mentorship before Hancur’s tenure, but it fell by the wayside when that coordinator left the department. It was resurrected on a recommendation from Melrose principal Carrie Petersen and Ken Duva, the current superintendent who was director of student services at the time. They approached Hancur to see if she was interested in taking a course at Mentor Rhode Island, which would allow her to coordinate the program. Petersen and Hancur enrolled in the course together.

“It really sparked my interest,” Hancur said. “I think that every child could use a mentor.”

Plenty of options

The mentors encompass a wide variety of community members who have previous experience with children, from retired teachers to speech therapists to camp counselors. Mentors also are trained through Mentor Rhode Island. There is an entire pamphlet that guides Hancur, which includes background checks and mandated reports of the mentoring sessions.

A mentor typically sticks with the same student throughout the program. The meetings are usually inside the school, but they are allowed to explore the campus if the student prefers the outdoors. They can walk the foot paths or use the playground. This can be advantageous, Hancur said, because students tend to be more forthcoming when they’re active.

“Children seem to open up more when they’re out,” Hancur said. “They can have a nice conversation once the children are doing something they enjoy.”

Molly Conlon, who coordinates the town’s teen center, volunteered as a mentor with a second-grade girl during the 2016-17 school year. She already had known the student through the recreation department.

Although it only was an hour per week, Conlon said she had a positive impact on her mentee by teaching the student to spread her wings. The message was, “We’re going to do something each week. It’s OK to do something different.”

At the onset, Conlon and her second-grader played the board game Candyland to build a rapport. After a few weeks, they were taking walks outside, visiting the library and playing with Legos in the makerspace.

Hancur occasionally pops her head into these sessions to see the interactions, which is her favorite part.

“I love to catch them when they don’t know that I’m there,” she said. “We have one student who loves to play hockey. I would see him and his mentor down in the gym, playing, laughing and having fun. It was just such a great moment because you never know how these kids will attach themselves.”

Slowly growing

Although the sessions are during the school day, Hancur stresses that the program is to build confidence and social skills, not for tutoring.

“We really want to give the children that empowerment,” she said. “It’s their time. As long as it’s used well, they can do what they want.”

There currently are three mentees at Melrose and one at Lawn. The student at the middle school, who has been involved since the beginning, opted to continue into the fifth grade. Although there is no program at Lawn, Hancur expects the school department to formally expand the program before the next school year.

There are several children currently waiting for new volunteers to mentor them. While the program is intended to be small — Hancur said mentors pulling students in and out of classrooms can be overwhelming for the staff, along with the need for available space — the department does not plan to turn away any student who is suggested by a teacher or parent.

According to Hancur, the mentorships have been an obvious success. Every student who has participated in the program elected to rejoin the following year. The parents also have expressed their gratitude after noticing the change.

“That has probably been the most rewarding thing,” she said. “We know we’re doing something right. It’s definitely a program that’s worth it. We’re seeing the differences. We have only had positive results from it.”

Although most of the mentors returned, Conlon was unable to commit for the 2017-18 school year. She does, however, plan to work with students again.

“It was rewarding just to see how excited the student got when I showed up,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re making a little bit of impact in someone’s day.”

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