A Mentor Model that Can Help Youth Beat the Odds Header


A Mentor Model that Can Help Youth Beat the Odds

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

97 percent on-time graduation.

That’s what you expect to find – and do find – in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods. It’s also what I found when I visited a program that serves predominantly low-income, high-risk young people in Portland, Oregon. 

Self Enhancement Inc. (SEI) serves thousands of young Portlanders each year. Nearly all of SEI’s students are African American. Eighty-five percent of them live in or near poverty, and 30 percent have a parent or sibling in jail. And yet, they have a graduation rate that is on par with high schools in the wealthiest communities across America. 

While in Portland, I also visited Friends of the Children, where the students facing the highest risks are beating the odds, graduating from high school and finding a way out of generational poverty.

What’s the secret behind the success of these two programs? In two words: caring adults

A Relationship Model

SEI assigns each student a professional mentor, who is responsible for providing support, navigation, encouragement, accountability, problem solving, you name it. 

These mentors – called SEI Coordinators – stay in continuous touch with the students, their teachers, the school, the family or caretakers. “As one college-bound senior told me: “Coordinators are like a second parent. You can go to them for anything.”

Not surprisingly, just about every Coordinator I met was a graduate of SEI. Their roots are in the same community, they’ve handled the same challenges as the students they work with today.

SEI describes this as a "relationship model,” and at the heart of it is a simple, powerful belief: that every young person has a real gift.   

Coordinators work to find that gift, explore it, and give the young person a feeling of possibility and strength. Watching them work reminded me of a finding from recent research of our own: Young people already have the strength they need to succeed—it’s relationships and support that help them tap into and direct that strength toward educational goals.

As one of the Coordinators told me, “The magic is in the relationships.” 

And you know how little that magic costs? $3,500 per young person, per year. 

The Bigness of This Work

After I left SEI, I visited Friends of the Children, a program that provides salaried, professional mentors to students from kindergarten through high school. 

The majority of students were born to teen parents who never graduated high school themselves, and half of them have parents who have been or are incarcerated. 

And yet, 83 percent of students graduate on-time, 93 percent stay out of the juvenile justice system, and 98 percent avoid teen parenting. That’s the kind of results that relationships get. 

Much like SEI, the mentors at Friends of the Children aren’t rookies. They’re experienced, dedicated individuals who never clock out. 

Gary Clemons worked as a mentor before he become program director at Friends of the Children. Gary told me about a young mentee who lived in a chaotic and unsafe home, acted out frequently and was suspended 15 times in the first grade.

With Gary’s help – and a lot of bonding over basketball – the boy began to learn to control his emotions and behavior. In second grade, he was suspended 11 times. In third grade, none.

I left Portland impressed and hopeful. SEI and Friends of the Children show that when young people growing up in the most challenging circumstances can count on stable, supportive relationships with caring adults, they can and do beat the odds. 

With care and intentionality, focus and rigor, patience and bottomless dedication, we can produce remarkably good results with the kids that most of society assumes can’t and won’t make it.
 “Think of the bigness of this work,” one of SEI’s mentors said to me. “We are saving lives.” 

And, as we learned from Don’t Quit on Me, even the small things—a hello, a ride, a meal, an honest “how are you?”—can make a huge difference to a young person living in a tough neighborhood or having a tough time at school. 

January is National Mentoring Month – an opportunity to celebrate the success of programs like SEI and Friends of the Children and to reflect on the large and small acts each of us can take to help a young person feel valued, encouraged and supported.

It isn’t innovation or rocket science. It’s hard work and careful implementation that can lead to great results, even for the students who many expect to fail.