Mentors: Beacons of Hope

By Dondero, Grace M. | Adolescence, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Mentors: Beacons of Hope

Dondero, Grace M., Adolescence

It has been over a decade since the publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), the scathing benchmark report on the condition of America's schools. That report, coupled with findings and recommendations from other blue-ribbon committees, councils, agencies, and foundations, called for sweeping school reform. The message was clear: Our schools are failing.

As a result of this failure, American youths are at risk of becoming involved with drugs, of dropping out of school, and of being incarcerated. These at-risk youths are ill-prepared to enter the work force of the 21st century.

Among the numerous recommendations was a call to invest those most involved in schooling and child development with greater authority. This approach promotes school-based management, thereby empowering parents and teachers in the decision-making process and forcing central administrators to relinquish much of their power. Site-based management involves decision making in the areas of curriculum, budget, general school policies, and personnel matters. Another initiative called for the lengthening of the school day and year; however, there has been concern over the cost of implementation in already overtaxed communities.

One recommendation that has generated much interest and support is the matching of schools with private-sector companies and universities. There are now successful partnerships that link colleges and corporate sponsors with neighborhood schools. Frequently, the sponsor provides financial support as well as tutoring and career counseling. An innovative variation of this exists in New York State. As part of the statewide celebration of the Decade of the Child, Matilda R. Cuomo, wife of the former governor, founded the New York State Mentoring Program. This program recruits caring adults from a variety of sources-business, civic groups, municipal agencies, and universities-who are matched with at-risk youths during the school year.

Mentoring is a very old idea. Mentor was the name of the loyal friend of Odysseus. Preparing to leave for the Trojan War, Odysseus entrusted the care of his son, Telemachus, to Mentor. The world "mentor" has since come to mean a loyal, wise and trusted teacher and friend.

Today, a mentor is any caring, mature person who forms a one-on-one relationship with someone in need. A mentor is defined as one who listens to, cares for, gives advice to, and shares information and life/career experiences with another, especially a young person requiring assistance.

Mentors provide support in academic and social development. They serve as role models, offering friendship, guidance, and stability (Bandura, 1977). Mentors represent a commitment to values, and they promote a sense of personal worth, foster self-realization, help broaden opportunities, and assist in making intelligent choices.

Mentoring has long been considered an important role of senior members of many professions. According to the 1983 Annual Report of the Commonwealth Fund (Mahoney, 1983), doctors, lawyers, and teachers look to experienced professionals for help: "Recently in California's public school system, teachers chosen by their fellow teachers have been acting as mentors for beginning instructors, and now women are consciously reaching out to have the mentor relationship specially designed for them. A recent survey of some 400 professional women from business, law, education, health and government showed that three-fourths found mentors important to their growth and development" (p. 3).

Mentoring can be important to young people as well, particularly those who are at risk of leaving school. According to Smink (1990), researchers have found that dropouts often cite the absence of anyone who cared about them as one of the primary reasons for leaving school. Lefkowitz (1989) found that interested adults were an important factor for youths who overcame the attractions of street life and now lead successful, productive lives. …

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