Since the beginning of the school year, third-graders from East Kelloggsville Elementary have boarded a school bus every Wednesday morning for the short ride to Kelloggsville High School. There, they head to a classroom where each child sits down for 45 minutes with someone a little older and a little wiser: a high school mentor.
On this particular morning Sydney Balsitis, a mentoring service specialist with D.A. Blodgett St. John’s, is facilitating the lesson. She asks the younger students how they deal with conflict. Answers range from “talking about it” to “asking a teacher for help” to “cupcakes.”
Next, students work with their mentors to learn about “the peace process.”
This is Peer to Peer, a mentoring program that organizers say is the first of its kind in West Michigan. Elizabeth Frendo, mentoring service supervisor for D.A. Blodgett St. John’s, was inspired by similar work being done through MSU Extension. She wrote a grant to fund the two-tiered mentoring model, and partnered with Kelloggsville schools to implement it. (“Two-tiered” means Frendo and Balsitis mentor the high school students, who in turn mentor the third-graders.)
“We focus on coping skills, feelings, conflict,” said Frendo. “The structure of the program is to hit those areas that would inhibit success in a classroom.”
What makes the program unique from the informal mentoring Kelloggsville has done in the past, said Frendo, is that everything is documented and measured to see if it’s working.
So… Is It Working?
Results have been promising so far. Students were surveyed at the beginning and middle of the program in an attempt to see what coping skills they already had, and which ones they gained. Frendo said they could see improvement from the first survey to the second. At the end of the 14-week program, they’ll repeat the survey.
Senior Symone Britt said this is her first time mentoring anybody, and she has learned quite a bit.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun interacting with them,” said Symone, who works with a third-grader with special needs. “I’ve been trying to teach her to sit down and focus on what we’re learning, because she has a hard time focusing. I’ve learned a lot about patience and cooperation.”
Steven Wood, third grade teacher at East Kelloggsville Elementary, said his students look forward to meeting with their mentors, and love to run into them outside the classroom.
“It’s somebody that they really look up to,” he said. “Coming from a high-schooler instead of a parent or a teacher, (the lessons) resonate with them a little bit more.”
Community Coordinator Paula Dykstra said she appreciates the partnership with D.A. Blodgett St. John’s.
“It’s been a learning curve for the high school students, especially because they’re not used to the behavior of a third-grader,” she said. “It’s been fun to watch them change and adjust.”
“The hardest part will be severing the ties that these high school students have made with the third-graders,” Dykstra added. “The principals have been in touch and will make arrangements for them to see each other again.”
Next semester, a new group of students will benefit from Peer to Peer as high-schoolers will partner with third-graders from a different elementary school in the district. Mentoring in a small group setting and one-on-one mentoring between adults and fourth- and fifth-graders are also on the horizon for the district, Dykstra said.