Research doesn’t work if agencies don’t use it: that was something of a mantra at last week’s National Mentoring Summit in Washington DC. While there are all kinds of reasons why agencies may not rely on the latest research findings to inform their programming (and we could tick off what they are, but that’s another column), it’s hard to deny the truth of the statement.The most persuasive research presented at the Summit wasn’t exactly new, but it’s so important that it’s worth pondering afresh.
A quarter of all youth drop out of high school, so if mentoring is about catching at-risk youth before they fall, this is an awfully big target to take aim at. Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to predict who these youth will be years before they actually drop out. A 6th-grade student who has failed math or English, been officially disciplined in one of his or her core classes, or is absent more than 20% of the time has a 75% chance of leaving school without graduating. Seventy-five percent! So why don’t mentoring programs focus with laser-like intensity on these kids, referring those who don’t really need mentoring (and not all kids do) to more general youth development programs, and kids who need more than mentoring to clinical services?
One reason is that it’s not easy for agencies to identify schools with high percentages of sixth-graders in trouble. Even if it were, providing enough coordinated mentoring to make a difference for kids with complicated family issues isn’t necessarily a simple matter. It may not require specialized knowledge (anybody can help a newly homeless student map out the best bus route to school, or check in about how the latest math test went), but it does require tenacity and real commitment to being there for that child. Enough adult mentoring power may exist to get this done, but only if it’s deployed narrowly and deeply. At this point, it’s not. The good news? It can be. Now that we know who to be reaching out to, the rest, as one panelist at the summit said, is an ‘engineering problem.’ And whatever else we Americans are, we’re good at solving engineering problems.