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This May Be the Key to Graduating At-Risk Students

It turns out that how long a mentor sticks around can have a huge impact. One organization is working with schools to follow kids from kindergarten to graduation, and it's expanding to more cities.

friends of the children
A mentor and mentee with Friends of the Children.
(Studio McDermott/Courtesy of Friends of the Children)
When he was in the first grade, 6-year-old Anthony was suspended from school 15 times. He angered easily, often exploding in fury in the middle of class, throwing things over his desk and yelling at his teacher.

“He had abandonment issues; he frustrated easily; he angered very easily,” says Terri Sorensen, the national president of Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit that has worked with Anthony -- who is now a high school sophomore in Oregon, and whose name is changed in this article -- since he started kindergarten.

Anthony's mother had him when she was just a teenager, and his father passed away in prison when Anthony was four years old. By kindergarten, his anger and aggression drew the attention of his teachers and evaluators at Friends of the Children, an organization dedicated to mentoring children like Anthony.

The program -- which recently expanded in five cities, to reach a total of 15 locations in the U.S. and U.K. -- could offer a solution for at-risk children that schools have struggled to help escape from cyclical poverty and other negative life outcomes.

Unlike most mentoring programs in the United States, which offer a few months or years of involvement, Friends of the Children offers kids 12 years of continuous mentorship from kindergarten to high school graduation. Rather than relying on volunteer mentors who already have full-time jobs, and who may not have any experience working with kids, Friends of the Children hires college-educated, professionally-trained people with at least two years of experience working with vulnerable children, Sorensen says. Each friend is a full-time employee with salaries and benefits, tasked with helping eight kids navigate their often difficult lives.

That stability is the key to the program's success, its leaders say. Studies have consistently shown that short-term mentoring programs, or those where mentors leave suddenly and unexpectedly, can actually be harmful to children

According to third-party evaluations, 83 percent of kids enrolled in a Friends program graduate from high school (the same as the average U.S. graduation rate, which is at an all-time high), 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system and 98 percent avoid becoming teen parents -- despite more than 80 percent of them having been born to teen parents. 

The Friends program is also saving the public money: A study by the Harvard Business School Association of Oregon showed that for every $1 invested in Friends, a community saves over $7 in social costs. Enrolling one child in the program can save a community $900,000.

"The [Friends] program benefitted not just the individual kids that were assigned a mentor but our entire school," says Rebecca Chase, who spent six years as principal at one of the participating schools in Portland.

However, the program is limited by its funding sources. Each chapter can only include as many children as it can raise funds to pay for, mainly from endowments and other private donations. Some chapters and affiliates rely on a federal matching grant through the Social Innovation Fund. But for the most part, government money has not been a dependable way to fund the program.

"There is an opportunity to tap into public dollars, but public money is generally not used to fund long-term prevention initiatives," says Will Jones, the president of Thompson Child and Family Focus, which is helping run the Friends affiliate in Charlotte, N.C. "The community really does need to rally behind this program."

Chase, the principal, wishes there were dedicated public funds for a program like Friends.

"At Lincoln Park [elementary school], we would talk about 25 kids that we knew would benefit from this program," but could only pick 10 to 12 every year. She says there were generally around 40 children picked throughout the entire district each year. "If there was tax money for a program like this for students with a certain number of risk factors, that would be fantastic."

Sorensen says she knows of no other organization that makes such a long and unequivocal commitment to children. Kids cannot be kicked out of Friends for any reason, she says, except if they move outside of the 30-mile radius covered by the organization.

Friends spend a minimum of four hours per week with each child. The organization asks for a minimum three-year commitment from the mentors who sign on -- though most stay longer, averaging seven years with the organization, according to Sorensen.

The partnership starts early, as evaluators from the organization embed themselves into kindergarten classrooms for six weeks to observe the kids, eventually choosing the most vulnerable among them to become part of the program.

“When we observe children in kindergarten, we are looking for those kids who aren’t coming to school, are aggressive or withdrawn, are in generational cycles of incarceration or teen parenting,” Sorensen says. The program also targets children in foster care with high-risk factors for abuse and neglect.

Schools make the first contact with parents to explain the Friends program and get permission for a representative to reach out to the family. According to Sorensen, 99 percent of families that are contacted accept the help.

Research shows that the children targeted by Friends have the highest likelihood of negative life outcomes: dropping out of school, becoming teen parents and getting wrapped up in the criminal justice system.

Friends is currently in the middle of a long-term randomized control trial, and the initial results are promising: Parents and caretakers in Friends appear to have a more positive view of their children. 

The program has certainly made a difference for Anthony.

In kindergarten, he was assigned a mentor named Gary, who immediately noticed the young boy’s fascination with basketball.

“Gary would often play basketball with Anthony during their time together, and if Gary started beating him, Anthony would get very angry,” Sorensen says.

So Gary turned the games into lessons: He would purposely go up a few points on Anthony and then help the boy manage his anger, teaching him to breathe and take time out for himself.

The lesson translated.

Anthony learned to recognize when he was starting to lose control, breathing through the feelings and sometimes asking for a bathroom pass from his teachers to avoid blowing up in the classroom.

In second grade, Anthony went down from 15 suspensions during the school year to 12. By third grade, he stopped getting suspended at all. Now, Anthony is in 10th grade, playing on his high school basketball team and on track to become the first person in his family to graduate from high school.

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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