Guest Column

Power and Impact

The Superintendent as Student Mentor by JOSEPH M. PORTO

I got to thinking one day. What if I selected two boys who were teetering on the fence between a positive and negative middle school experience and mentored them for a full school year?

At two years from retirement and looking for closure, I liked the idea of rediscovering the allure the profession held for me in the first place — direct and meaningful interaction with children.

Two perfect candidates immediately came to mind. “Justin” was an 8th grader I’d met three years earlier when his principal’s absence left me to deal with that day’s discipline issues. Justin was regarded throughout the school as a difficult child, but after spending time with him I discovered a sweet, likable and even vulnerable quality behind that bully facade.

“Kurt” was a bright but seemingly depressed 6th grader who coped with a textbook case of Asperger’s syndrome. He had difficulty making and keeping friends, as his behavior baffled students and adults alike, and he frequently asked permission to leave school and go home. Concerned about Kurt’s ability to transition from the elementary to the middle school, his mother e-mailed our district’s director of pupil services, “I just want someone to keep an eye on my guy.”

Lectures Taboo
When I thought about mentoring this pair, I knew what I did not want: no lecturing, no forced sharing of feelings, and no pseudo-therapy. I finally aimed toward the simple goal of communicating to the boys that the superintendent, the “top dog” in the district, cared about how they were doing and would be checking up on them regularly.

I knew from research and my own experience that middle school boys do not like to sit and talk, especially about their feelings. If you want to reach boys, you need to do something with them. They also need to be given choices so they can feel in control, within some reasonable limits established by adults.

I decided to meet with each boy once a week for 30 minutes and offer a variety of options for our time together, including playing board games, doing a “walk and talk” around the school, throwing a football, playing basketball, competing in a video game and, yes, every once in a while, just sitting and talking. The boys soon learned to expect that, at some point during the weekly activity, I would find a way, not always subtly, to ask how they were doing. “G-2, hit — you just sank my battleship, Kurt! That’s three games in a row you have won. Are you doing as well with your math this week?”

The boys seemed to respond to the backdoor approach. The more active and engaged you are with boys, the more they begin to trust you.

Although they were fairly reticent at first, it didn’t take long before both boys, in the midst of a ball toss or a move on the game board, were sharing homework challenges, friendship troubles, discipline confrontations, teacher issues and problems at home. Sometimes I would just listen to the boys; other conversations led me to make specific suggestions.

If one of the boys had a bad week, I would typically help him set a reasonable goal and then check on his progress the following week. This targeted academic or behavioral discussion would encompass no more than five minutes of our half hour together, and it is my strong conviction that the remaining time was equally valuable to the mentoring process. The boys needed to know that, for 30 minutes each week, an important adult in the school devoted time just to them.

Game-Changing Moments
To my amazement, neither Justin nor Kurt missed a single session nor even had to be reminded of the appointment. The effects of these simple 30 minutes per week were extremely gratifying.

For Justin, by all accounts, 8th grade was the most successful year in his school career. He passed all of his classes for the first time ever, and he went from one or two out-of-school suspensions, four or five in-school suspensions and countless detentions per year to an 8th-grade year that included just two short in-school suspensions and fewer than five detentions.

Did these gains last? In a beautiful, unsolicited letter, Justin’s mother wrote me midway through the following school year that Justin was thriving in high school behaviorally and academically, and that our mentoring experience was the game changer.

At the end of 6th grade, Kurt decided to re-enroll himself in my mentoring program for 7th grade, which was all the evidence I needed to conclude that superintendent mentoring was working for him. Discipline, social missteps and trips to the principal’s office virtually came to a halt in 6th grade. While his attendance was still spotty, and he continues to have trouble making and keeping friends, Kurt seems happier at school and a bit more at ease in social situations. His mother confirmed that my keeping an eye on her guy made all the difference in the world both to her and to Kurt.

In searching for a rewarding way to cap a 33-year educational career, I stumbled upon an uncomplicated and powerful discovery: Thirty minutes a week can change a student’s life — and mine as well. What better closure to a career in education?

I am in awe of the power of intense adult mentorship, and I dream about what would happen if each adult in every school took on one child to mentor each year. Imagine the impact.

Joseph Porto is superintendent of Avoca School District 37 in Wilmette, Ill. E-mail: portoj@avoca37.org