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Mentoring in schools helps mentors and their students

Programs offer adult confidantes as well as help with homework, social life

Dakota Schmidt, 11, a student at Sunrise Drive

Dakota Schmidt, 11, a student at Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Sayville, and mentor Maureen Foster have been together for three years. Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz

The National Mentoring Partnership defines a

mentor as:

A supportive adult who works with a young person to build a relationship by offering guidance, support and encouragement to help the young person’s positive and healthy development over a period of time.

However the word is defined, the goal is to build a positive relationship with a student. That’s where schools, teachers, volunteers and a network of mentoring programs across Long Island step in.

From a peer-to-peer mentoring program at Sayville High School, to a program involving 190 students at Baldwin High School, to a group program at Walnut Street Elementary in Uniondale, mentors and mentees meet weekly for conversations over lunch and, sometimes, games. Students may come in early for their weekly sessions before classes. The relationships often include check-ins during the week that can be as informal as popping into the teacher’s room to say hello.

The nonprofit Mentor New York supports 600-plus programs that serve more than 60,000 young people statewide, with 140 programs serving 7,800 students on Long Island.

Al Nardone, an English teacher who is in his sixth year as a mentor at Baldwin High School, said the time spent with the three students he mentors is a highlight of his week. “I’m teaching 22 years,” he said. “I should have done this years ago. It’s taught me a lot.”

Nardone, 46, of North Valley Stream, meets for lunch weekly with junior Derek Valladares, 16, of Baldwin. They met when Valladares was in his English class two years ago, then were matched the following year.

“He was my Romeo,” Nardone said with a laugh, explaining Valladares took the part when the class read “Romeo and Juliet.”

They don’t meet outside of school, but last summer when Valladares needed some advice, he emailed Nardone. “He got me through it. ‘Things will be fine,’ he said, and they were,” Valladares recalled.

Nardone enjoys cooking and so does Valladares, so that’s one thing they talked about as they were getting to know one another. There’s no specific agenda when they meet, but they talk about food, Valladares’ weekend plans, what he wants to be in the future, his career plans, and any issues that have come up. “It’s just like someone you can instantly relate to,” Valladares said. “It’s a caring adult who gives me confidence and assurance.”

Valladares offered to skip their meeting one week when he knew Nardone was really busy. “I told him no, meeting with you de-stresses me,” Nardone said. “I come away feeling better.”

For 25 years, the Mentoring Partnership of Long Island has provided support and training for mentoring programs. In 2016, Mentoring Partnerships of New York City and Long Island combined and expanded to create Mentor New York. The nonprofit is funded through donations, corporate sponsorships, grants and fundraising events.

A two-day conference each year at LIU Post includes professional development sessions for adults, workshops and a college tour for 250 student mentees from Long Island, the Bronx and Queens.

Along with LIU’s support, AT&T has contributed $125,000 over five years to support mentor training programs across Long Island, part of the company’s Aspire initiative for innovation in education.

“It’s nice when a corporation recognizes when it needs to be more hands-on,” said Jean Cohen, executive director of Mentor New York.

As for the teachers and staff who volunteer as mentors, Cohen said the programs formalize what the educators are already doing.

“It’s really a powerful model, especially in a community like Long Island,” Cohen said. “In the city, you can hop on the subway or the student can go to the workplace to meet, but on Long Island we have such transportation issues. Having teachers and staff volunteers is huge. It’s really a gift they give the kids.”

UNIONDALE

Mentoring programs all involve one-on-one time to build a connection, but there are different ways to structure programs.

A lively group game of 20 Questions at Walnut Street Elementary School in Uniondale follows one-on-one conversations while the students eat lunch. To bridge the time between lunch and the group game, Fred Skolnik, a longtime volunteer and mentor group coordinator who has been coming to the school weekly since 2004, takes a page from the game Scruples and asks an ethical question designed to get students thinking about what they’d do in a certain situation:

You’re taking ticket money at a school event and a friend comes by, says they don’t have any money and asks you to let them in for free. Would you let them in? After lots of discussion, the students offer a range of answers:

“I’d let everyone in,” said one student.

“I’d say no, because the school needs the money, and it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.”

“I’d tell them it’s against the law to let them in, but that they can go the next time.”

“I’d give them the money to pay for it.”

“I would say no and make them pay $100 extra.”

Skolnik, 65, of Plainview, coordinates the LIKE program, Lawyers Involved in Kids’ Education, that his Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman law firm in East Meadow has supported for 14 years. Each week from October through May, 15 mentors come to the school for sessions designed to help the students increase vocabulary and analytical skills, primarily through word and number games. That includes law firm employees along with some recruits, such as Skolnik’s brother, Herb, and Linda Friedman, the former Walnut Street principal who retired three years ago but comes back weekly to mentor. Skolnik also sits on the Mentor New York board of directors.

The school is about 10 minutes from his office. “It’s the best hour and a half out of the day,” Skolnik said. “These fourth- and fifth-graders are great, they’re really good kids. We really challenge them with these games.”

The group spreads out among three tables, five pairs to a table, which makes it easy for teams when it’s game time. That allows for one-on-one conversations while the students eat, as well as for the mentors to get to know all the students at the table. Substitutes are on standby if someone can’t make it in a given week.

At a 10-year LIKE reunion in 2014, Skolnik said a student who was in his first year of college came back and recounted that his mentor brought him a snack every week.

“He never forgot that somebody cared enough to bring that in for him each week,” Skolnik recalled. “He said he didn’t much like school, but the one hour a week he liked was when he saw his mentor.”

Three programs operate at the Walnut Street school, said program coordinator and school social worker Quyen Rovner. The LIKE program, with 15 students; the FOCUS program (Focus on Children, Uniting on Staff), with 33 students and teacher and staff mentors; and an after-school program with 21 students at Hofstra University in Hempstead, where students are bused and paired with college-age mentors for everything from homework help to tutoring to games, Rovner said.

The LIKE program helps build students’ self-esteem and confidence, and reinforces strong work-study habits, said Rovner, 46, of Dix Hills. Students are referred for the program by teachers, parents, siblings and the PTA.

In addition to the weekly lunch-hour program, there’s a Gratitude Feast at Thanksgiving, occasional field trips to a Ducks game or a year-end bowling outing.

Mentor Jenney Tesoriero and fifth-grader Ashlee Chung are in their second year together in the lunchtime LIKE program. They talk about “what happened while we weren’t together, what I did on the weekend and what movies I watched and stuff,” said Ashlee, who is 11 and lives in Uniondale. She is quiet and serious and Tesoriero is more outgoing. Rovner paired them so Tesoriero could help draw Ashlee out.

Ashlee said she has learned to ask questions so she can get to know her mentor and “that you can be open to your mentor about stuff you want to talk about. I feel like I’ve gotten to know her. And I learned not to be so serious. You can be open with everyone.”

Tesoriero, 47, of Westbury, is the escrow manager at Certilman Balin and has been a mentor for seven years.

“I love this program,” she said. “I get to spend time with kids, and I see how well the program works for them.”

Tesoriero said she has learned the students enjoy having an adult they can confide in. “I think that’s so important, that they know there are friends here for them, that they have bonds,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a negative in their life if people come and go. This program allows the kids to talk about things without judgment, things they wouldn’t talk about with their friends, and get guidance from an adult without [the adult] passing judgment.”

They also share good news. “She was so excited to tell me she was accepted into the Latin School at Kellenberg [Memorial High School, for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders] and will be going there next year,” Tesoriero said. “She’s got a plan — she wants to be a doctor, a pulmonologist.”

SAYVILLE

At Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Sayville, Maureen Foster and Dakota Schmidt have been meeting weekly over lunch and recess for three years. Foster, 56, of Manorville, is retiring this year after 30 years of teaching and 15 years as a mentor, while Dakota is graduating from fifth grade and will move on to middle school.

They talk about what Dakota is doing, playing flute in band, and making crafts and working in coloring books together. Foster likes the one-on-one time. “This is the highlight of my week, when I can sit down and chat and relax with her,” she said.

Dakota, 11, of Sayville, enjoys the chance to talk, build a relationship and do crafts. “I like just being able to talk to someone and just talk about stuff,” she said. Beating Foster at Hangman doesn’t hurt. “She beats me a lot,” Foster said.

The pair also helped paint a section of a mural in the school’s hallway and made bowls for the program’s end-of-year picnic. One year the final project was a T-shirt, and another year they painted wooden name blocks, which Foster keeps in her classroom.

Dakota said she probably won’t continue with a mentoring program at her new school. “I think I’ll miss Mrs. Foster,” she said. “But I might try it.”

There are 21 mentor pairs this year, said program coordinator Toni Fabian, the Sunrise Drive Elementary School social worker. The program starts in October and runs through the school year. The art teacher helps mentors with craft projects and makes supplies available, while some pairs take to the school gym for sports during their time together. Parents generally attend a startup breakfast, Fabian said, where older students in the program talk about their experience. Staffers outline expectations and activities, and have each pair pick the day and time they’ll meet.

Mentoring programs run in other Sayville schools as well, with some peer-to-peer mentoring taking place in the high school and middle school. Training in the peer programs covers communication skills, how to be a good listener, what the expectations are of those involved, setting limits and when it’s appropriate to reach out to adults for help. There also are monthly events such as bagel breakfasts.

The high school’s three programs involve 50 students and five adult mentors in a range of programs that include one-on-one mentoring for ninth- and 10th-graders, peer mentoring by 11th- and 12th-graders and mentor-in-training activities, said Martha Kahan, of East Quogue, an Eastern Suffolk BOCES student assistance services teacher working in Sayville High School’s program.

BALDWIN

Insurance agent Scott Hermann was Andre Edwards’ mentor at Baldwin High School for three years, from 10th grade until Edwards graduated in 2005. They recently reconnected when Edwards, a member of the NYPD, came to Hermann’s State Farm office in North Merrick to get insurance.

Edwards, 30, of Baldwin, has been on the force since 2013 and is a community-based officer.

“It’s been amazing to cross paths,” Edwards said. “I never forgot him. Scott’s always been a great guy, and he played a great role in my life during high school.”

During Edwards’ school years, they met once a week. “Scott was always there, he knew my lunch period and he came,” Edwards said. “He was a positive voice; that stuck with me. He was a huge role model.”

Hermann met Edwards’ family and talked with his mother at school events. “Just having someone who wasn’t a part of my immediate family was good,” Edwards said. “I felt a strong backbone in our relationship. He really did care. It was a safe place to talk, like an open book. We could talk about things I didn’t want to tell my family, or how to bring up a bad grade with my family.”

When Edwards arrived at the insurance agency last month, he saw the picture Hermann had of them together taken 13 years before, and they took an updated photo. “It seemed like we never lost touch,” Edwards said of meeting Hermann again.

Hermann, 49, of Levittown, was a mentor for 11 years. He was a new father when he first volunteered in 2001, just after 9/11, and said he realized as he took mentor training that he was paying back all the informal mentors he had while he was growing up in Buffalo as the son of a single mom.

“Andre taught me a lot,” Hermann said. “I was the one that was learning and growing and becoming a better father. He taught me patience and just to be aware. He was open and authentic, a good young man. And he’s doing service like that today as a community police officer.”

Hermann said his relationships with each mentee developed differently, depending upon the student. “We learned from Mrs. Cohen during training, don’t be a parent — be an ear, a sounding board, help them with homework.”

The program was “so much fun and so rewarding for both of us. It was a true blessing in that regard,” Hermann said. “None of us have gotten where we are on our own. Good people have helped us.”

BALDWIN

Rashida Scott a senior at Baldwin High School, asked Nia Thompson, who was once her substitute English teacher, to be her mentor this year.

“We had a good relationship,” said Scott, 17, as the two laugh and finish each other’s sentences, modeling their “twin” look while dressed similarly in black boots and jackets. Thompson, who has taught in the district for 12 years, also became adviser for the dance club that started this year, where Scott is club president.

Thompson, 37, of Baldwin, has been a mentor since she started in the district and remains in touch with her first mentee. She said she enjoys offering students a safe adult relationship. When she sees Scott, who also lives in Baldwin, they talk about academics, relationship issues, or dance club business.

“Because she’s not my mom, she can give me advice as an adult in my life,” Scott said. “She always has something to talk to that explains things you’re going through. Her advice is genuine and heartfelt.”

Thompson said her mentees are like her children, and that it’s important that she be there for them in various capacities. “I will support them all the way, and I will go to bat for them,” she said.

The school’s mentoring coordinators — Pat Banhazl, who trained State Farm agent Scott Hermann in 2001, and Donna Prager, a family and consumer science teacher — said the program started with a corporate relationship with State Farm, but when the company moved its offices off Long Island 10 years ago, teachers stepped in as volunteers.

There now are 400 mentees across the district, said Banhazl, with 190 in the high school who meet with 100 mentors drawn from teachers, staff and administrators. There are 120 mentees in the middle school and 90 among the four elementary schools. An annual mentor breakfast in December and a dinner in June are part of the program.

The high school’s 17-year-old mentoring program succeeds because of teacher support, said Shari L. Camhi, Baldwin Schools superintendent.

“It started small, but success breeds success,” she said. “You don’t become a teacher unless you love kids and want to build a relationship with them. There’s generally a good feeling between teachers and students here, and I think this has a lot to do with that.”

7,800

Students in mentoring programs in Long Island schools

140

Mentoring programs at schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties

25

Years of support provided by the Mentoring Partnership of Long Island

$125,000

Donations from AT&T to local mentoring efforts

Source: Mentor New York

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