Letter originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times "Letters to the Editor" on September 12, 2014.
Can a struggling student at a school in one of Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods be successful?
We believe the answer is “yes” and there’s research now that shows the way. Obstacles can be addressed if students have a mentor. A mentor can model good decision-making and problem-solving skills that can have a huge impact on a young person’s life. Mentors serve as living testaments to the rewards of staying on the right track, and helping students visualize a bright future.
The need is big. Some 400,000 kids began a new school year in Chicago this month. Most of them lack sufficient economic support. About 85 percent of Chicago Public Schools students receive free or reduced-price meals.
These kids often face some big hurdles, such as housing, incessant hunger and one-parent-families stressed by abuse or incarceration. Then there is the neighborhood violence in Chicago.
A rigorous 2013 study, “Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment,” by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) found that participation in Chicago’s “Becoming a Man” program reduced violent-crime arrests by 44 percent and non-violent arrests by 36 percent over the course of the school year. A key component of “Becoming a Man” is mentoring, and NBER also was able to project markedly higher rates of high school graduation for these students as a result of their increased academic engagement.
Many groups coordinate successful mentoring programs in the Chicago area. City Year Chicago reports positive outcomes when placing AmeriCorps members as mentors and tutors in schools to provide the consistency and support students need to feel engaged in learning and invested in their futures. Corps members are now in 21 schools throughout the city. Last year, 62 percent of targeted students improved their behavior assessments and 77 percent showed improvements in their academic assessment scores.
Mentoring is a key ingredient to ensuring Chicago youth can see past the violence to a life as educated, informed and engaged citizens. Every child needs someone to emulate if they are to develop their potential to become leaders and be their own best advocates. This means Chicago needs a surge of caring adults.
It’s time to prioritize an approach that works. We need more people, especially young adults, to step forward as volunteer mentors and join with the city’s philanthropic community to expand support for our at-risk students.
Lisa Morrison Butler is the executive director of City Year Chicago
David D. Hiller is the President & CEO of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation