Mentors matter to minority teens, especially now

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Education remains a precious commodity, especially now when for many students, it’s balancing between learning inside a classroom and learning across the internet. 

Here in New York City, the mystery of what’s next for schools in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is a stressful reality for many students and their families. After previously being welcomed back in mid-September to kick off an academic year unlike any other, many public schools continue to deal with even more adjustments after coronavirus infection rates begin to climb once again. 

The disease may not discriminate, but those who are impacted — especially at the academic level — are certainly being singled out, especially among minority students. And it’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to focus on with his new citywide initiative, Mentors Matter.

It’s a program designed to provide guidance, scholarships and other social benefits to Black and brown students inside the school system. And while the program is meant to benefit a wide array of minority students, it targets struggling boys.

Overall graduation rates in New York climb as high as 82 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But data from the Southern Regional Education Board reveals graduation rates for Black males nationwide is 59 percent — lowest of any racial group in the country. Numbers weren’t much better in New York City, where just 63 percent of young Black men receive their high school diploma.

Ian Levy, Manhattan College’s school counseling programs director, looks outside the box when it comes to connecting with traditionally overlooked students, researching primarily hip-hop-based techniques being used in schools to effectively counsel minority boys and girls. Yet, one major obstacle to finding those much-needed connections is the fact that white faculty disproportionately work in inner-city schools who might lack the necessary life context. 

“When you look at me and I look like you, you see that I was able to go to school and get my master’s so that maybe I can do it as well,” said Phoebe Downes, career and college program manager at Riverdale Neighborhood House. “That’s something that really matters that they see someone, and therefore if they are struggling or are trying to go to college, can think back to that person who they talked to who went to college and did really well.”

de Blasio has teamed up with other community entities like One Hundred Black Men and CUNY Tutor Corps to get Mentors Matter off the ground. Taking a multi-faceted approach, both organizations will take turns expanding academic support services — including tutoring and mentoring — to reach a few thousand additional students in the city. 

At the forefront of these efforts is NYC Men Teach, intended to prepare young Black men for careers as public school teachers across the city — an area severely lacking when it comes to professionals of color.

By pairing students with mentors who look like them, that gap in connecting with these students will hopefully disappear. But now there’s even more added pressure for these students and their families as life is further complicated by the economic and social effects of the pandemic. 

Public schools are indeed trying to overcome these new barriers for learning. It’s just that some have better resources than others. 

“It was very difficult for a lot of kids to log on being that not everyone has Wi-FI, so some of the kids were using cell phones,” said Lidia Beqiraj, who manages the after-school middle school program at IN-Tech Academy.

Many of her students get additional assistance from Riverdale Neighborhood House on Mosholu Avenue, which works directly with not only IN-Tech, but other schools on the Kennedy Campus including New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math & Science. Knowing what many of the minority student populations face at these schools, neighborhood house leaders work with these students, helping them overcome the doubt they feel about their own individual worth to society — similar objectives to what de Blasio’s Mentors Matter hopes to achieve. 

“We try to give them closure, and I think a lot of the time for minority students with all the things happening in the world today, closure matters,” Downes said. “To have something start and finish is important for them. Even though we were going through a pandemic, having them be able to complete an internship, still get college support, and still have access to scholarship support” is vital. 

While virtually every neighborhood has room for improvement, the students Downes works with tend to have good heads on their shoulders, she says, searching for opportunities beyond high school. 

“When you think of the Kingsbridge area,” Downes said, “these are the students that don’t take for granted the opportunities they have.”

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