What It Takes: Mentors, Motivation, Moxie and Moms

by Guest Blogger
June 24th, 2008

by Leanna Landsmann

Every June we’re treated to cap and gowned seniors en route to their high-school graduations, proud families in tow. We smile and give them a ‘thumbs up.’ But we must also pause to see the drop outs as clearly as the graduates.

How did these students persevere when so many with so much more fail? What’s in their secret sauce? Can it be bottled for others?

One million students drop out of high school each year. The literature is packed with reasons: poverty, lack of college-bound culture at home, poor performing schools, low expectations and high pressure to reject academic success, too few great teachers and counselors. What more can the “village” it takes to raise a child do to prevent this?

As board chair of Greatschools.net, an organization that helps parents put their kids on a path to college, I stew about this more than your average Jane. After umpteen decades of ‘school reform,’ I’m angry we’re still slogging in place.

So I look forward each March to a call asking, “Do you want to review scholarship applications again this year?” I drop everything to pour over submissions from high-achieving, low-income New York City seniors who, if chosen, will get a generous four-year free ride to college from a family foundation with a bold-face name. From several hundred applicants, three-dozen are chosen to be interviewed. From that group, the foundation selects 25.

The bulky applications provide us with information about students’ family income, academic record, and service to community. From their transcripts and resumes we get a peek into their heads and hearts. From two required recommenders, we get a sense of students’ work ethic, values, and grit that got them accepted at some of the nation’s top universities. From the financial aid forms, we learn just how much the scholarships would matter in pulling these young people out of poverty. And from their essays we learn they have made no small plans. They want to be teachers, doctors, researchers, environmental problem-solvers, activists and public servants. “Change the world” is a common theme.

They have stellar GPAs, high praise from teachers, and a list of achievements that many 30-something middle managers would envy. Yet the early odds did not favor these young people. Among this year’s finalists were two students who had commuted to high school from homeless shelters. All but one was born outside the United States. Most entered schools here speaking a language other than English. Most were from single parent families; they had responsibilities for younger siblings or worked to support the family. For many, without the earned income tax credit there would be little food on dinner tables. Several suffered extreme poverty, political repression, or emotional trauma on their paths to becoming high-achieving seniors in NYC Public Schools. You cannot read these applications without a box of tissues.

Each year we wonder, “How did these students persevere when so many with so much more fail? What’s in their secret sauce? Can it be bottled for others?”

This year, I decided to study the common ingredients. They fall into categories I’ll call the four Ms: mentors, moxie, motivation, and Moms.

Mentors: Each applicant had a strong advocate within the school; a counselor or teacher, who reminded them daily of their potential. Each participated in high-enrichment activities or internships outside of school. They benefited from such organizations as LEDA (Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America), Jeter’s Leaders, Youth Bridge, Summer Youth Employment Program, Building with Books, Prep for Prep, Model UN, ROTC and programs affiliated with their houses of worship. Many had been prepped in middle school for challenging high school courses. They’d visited university campuses to literally see college in their futures. Guides helped navigate the college applications process. Their mentors were force multipliers, steering them between the Scylla and Charybdis of poverty’s disadvantages and the anti-intellectualism of teen culture.

Moxie: The students who won scholarships had a full-tilt combo of energy, determination, courage, and know-how. One girl, whose losses were as painful as her dreams were hopeful, regained composure after a question that we did not know recalled a cruel memory. She paused and regained her composure more gracefully than we and continued to make her case. Others, like the young woman who presented an original poem telling us to cast away our fears, or the young man from the Middle East who outlined his plan for world peace, used the interviews to showcase their effectiveness as leaders. From the marrow of their bones, they sent a message that said: place your bet on me.

Motivation: Teachers often find keys to students’ motivation in their resilience skills. Psychologists refer to resilience as “inoculation from the inside”. Resilience helps kids bounce back from the most trivial of slights and the most horrible of traumas. Resilience skills, contrary to popular notion, can be taught. They’re shaped by goal-setting, planning for success, and developing confidence through real achievements. In other words, planning for success, and succeeding, brings more success. A desire for a better life helped these students set their bars high. They were motivated to take the toughest courses, get high grades, ask for extra assignments, and work at challenging jobs and programs out of school. They were determined not to allow current constraints on their lives follow them into their futures.

Moms: When we asked, “Who is the person most influential to your school success?” these students overwhelming cited their mothers. Perhaps if more fathers were in their lives, we’d have heard about them too. But mothers who had low levels of literacy, who spoke no English, who were 10,000 miles away, who were ill and dying, who insisted that “you will be the first to go to college”, were so potent a force that they defined these students schedules and behaviors.

This will not surprise those familiar with the work of Temple University Professor Lawrence Steinberg. When he surveyed 20,000 high school students, he discovered that a student’s academic success has as much or more to do with high parental expectations and an authoritative parenting style than income, ethnicity, or the parents’ level of educational attainment. For our applicants, each night, and each morning, there was a parent, or a memory of one, prodding them on.

Not everyone has the time or the skills to help push uphill the big boulder of district-wide school improvement. But many of us can help bring more students through the eye of the needle. Here a few things you can do:

Volunteer to mentor. Go to PENCIL.org to find a school or program that matches your geography, or call the counselor at your local high school to volunteer directly. Make a long-term commitment to a middle-schooler or help seniors with the potential to reach college with the arduous applications and financial aid process.

Provide leadership opportunities: Many institutions and businesses offer internships to students, coach them in professional skills, and sponsor programs that range from Moot Court to enterprise development. Get involved and save these programs from budget cuts during tough economic times.

Ask two things of the from your school district: Advocate for more committed counseling staff within middle schools and high schools. And focus less on getting parents to meetings than getting them to buy into the notion that high expectations for achievement trump everything. As Steinberg notes in his report, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, (Simon and Schuster), parenting to put kids on a path to college is a skill that can developed.

Write a check: Generously support organizations that open our poorest high-achieving students’ eyes to life outside their crowded classrooms such as A Better Chance, Breakthrough Collaborative and the Posse Foundation, as well as local programs like Boston Scholars, Prep for Prep (New York), Ranier Scholars (Seattle), Scholarship Chicago and others.

Americans are builders and doers, but none of us alone can slow global warming, stop the slide of the dollar, or eradicate poverty. But we can invest in our low-income, high-achieving students. They’re dreaming of ways to get these jobs done.

A nationally recognized education writer and editor, Leanna Landsmann writes a weekly column for parents, A + Advice, How to Help Your Child Succeed in School. Distributed by United Media Syndicate, the column appears in daily newspapers across the nation.

2 Comments »

  1. I think many of the things that you are advocating for students we could modify and advocate for new teachers. When so many teachers leave the profession within five years, veteran teachers need to do a better job helping them along.

    Comment by Chris — January 10, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  2. Something definitely needs to be done. There probably isn’t one perfect solution out there but you’ve pointed out some good ones. Providing kids with the right role models is extremely important in my opinion.

    Comment by Motivational — April 7, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

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