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Is Mentoring the Answer to Slowing the Summer Slide?

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A unique summer school program in New York City is helping disadvantaged students avoid the summer slide through working with mentors.

Practice Makes Perfect pairs students in kindergarten though 8th grades who need remediation and/or enrichment in the summer with high-achieving, older students from their own neighborhood. These students in 8th through 12th grades serve as mentors for the younger children.  

"When we were kids, we just wanted to be cool," said Karim Abouelnaga, the CEO of Practice Makes Perfect . "Cool was always defined by the kids who were a few years older than us."

These mentors act as tutors for the students taking part in the program. In turn, the 8th through 12th grade students are mentored by college students who plan to become teachers. For these teaching fellows, the program is an internship, and they provide the instruction. The college students are supported by veteran classroom teachers who serve as teacher coaches or mentors for them.

PMP.jpgAbouelnaga calls this mentoring circle their "everyone wins" model. He said the younger students improve academically, the mentors are exposed to college students, the teaching fellows get real-world classroom experience, and the classroom teachers receive professional development through serving as coaches.

"They're [the teachers are] evaluating our college students," said Abouelnaga. "The college students are looking up to them as mentors, so they're more empowered. It's a lot less strenuous than having to teach all summer the same way they would in a traditional classroom."

Abouelnaga came up with the idea for this program when he was a college freshman. When he graduated from Cornell in 2013, the program, which is free for students, began in one New York City school. This summer, it will be in 37 schools in the city.

Classes are capped at 20 students, and each class has four mentors to ensure that all of the students get plenty of attention.

Curriculum

The curriculum offered varies by school. School administrators who hire Practice Makes Perfect to run the six-week summer program request the type of instruction they want. In some cases, that's intensive work in math and reading. Other times, that may be preparation work for high school entrance exams or enrichment activities such as field trips or college visits. The schools also decide which students are able to participate. 

The program appears to be working. It has an average attendance rate of 85 percent, and an independent evaluation found that, on average, Practice Makes Perfect scholars return to school a month ahead in math and two months ahead in reading.

The teaching fellows and mentors work to make this experience different from traditional summer school. The students have spirit days once a week and participate in spelling bees and math bees.

"The goal is to make learning and education fun, cool, and exciting, and I think that's what makes the difference for students," said Abouelnaga.

Schedule

College students are recruited for the program in November. Abouelnaga said last year the program received a little more than 1,200 applications for 110 spots. In January, the program goes into the schools to make observations about available resources and culture. Mentors are recruited in the spring, and schools are required to sign up no later than April to give the program adequate time to prepare for the summer classes. The teaching fellows also visit the students' homes before the sessions start to learn more about them and get parental buy-in.

For some students, the program doesn't end after six weeks. Practice Makes Perfect continues to work with the bottom 15 percent of students in summer school three hours a week, from October through March, when they take state assessments.

Abouelnaga said eventually he'd like to expand the program beyond New York City, and he would like to see the laws related to summer school change. Right now, he said, under 10 percent of students in urban neighborhoods are required to attend summer school, but state assessments show 60 percent to 70 percent of kids are not performing on grade level.

"There are kids who are not proficient or on grade level every single year who don't get any intervention," said Abouelnaga. "Schools aren't forced to report those numbers. Most cities are surprised in August when the state assessments come out and they show that most kids are not proficient. My goal is to get schools to start reporting that in June when we can actually act on that information."

This year, the program, which is going into its seventh summer, will serve 2,000 students.

Photo: A mentor works with a student through the Practice Makes Perfect program. Photo courtesy Practice Makes Perfect
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