For a group of at-risk middle school students in rural Missouri, some of whom were disrespectful and unmotivated, a new appreciation for school came from an unexpected place: a handful of successful high school students and a cell phone in Central Massachusetts. Over the past school year, the two seemingly mismatched groups met over the Internet once a week for 15 minutes. The result was a win for everyone.
"I wanted to help my community," said 16-year-old Ben Riela (pictured, left), a sophomore at Westborough High School. "We have good opportunities at my school. We can pursue our academic interests. But for other students and schools, kids aren't as motivated. We can change that by using the resources we have to help others succeed."
Together with friend James Coffey (pictured, right), a 17-year-old junior, Ben organized a local chapter of On Giants Shoulders. The not-for-profit organization provides support for high school students interested in working with at-risk middle schoolers. The older teens are matched with the younger teens to mentor and motivate them.
"I was looking for a leadership opportunity," Coffey said. "I was very involved in school, but I had no leadership. This seemed like a great opportunity to get experience while helping others."
Finding a giant solution
On Giants Shoulders was introduced in 2010 by Chelsea Dale, then a high school junior from the Bronx.
"My older cousin, who was a recent college graduate in her first teaching position, told me she was having a horrible time with her students. They disrespected her, wouldn't learn, and refused to even listen to her," Dale writes on the group's website, ongiantsshoulders.org. "It dawned on me that children in elementary and middle school wouldn't do that to a high school student. They know that it wasn't very long ago that we were their age, so we know all the tricks. We're not authority figures."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 7% of American students drop out of school before high school graduation. Dale reasoned that a group like On Giants Shoulders could reach students who were considering dropping out and motivate them to stay in school. She saw teen role models as the key to making that happen. The group was created as a resource tool for elementary and middle school teachers, as well as a community service outlet for high school students.
Both Riela and Coffey spread the word about their organization and quickly amassed a group of peers interested in helping out. Working with an advisor, English teacher Diane Perryman, the group was matched with students in the rural town of Roscoe, Miss., about 100 miles south of Kansas City.
The school-year mentoring program involved six Roscoe Middle School students and six Westborough High School teens. Using an interest survey, the older students were matched one-on-one with younger students based on mutual interests like sports or music.
"We knew that these students didn't want to be in school," Coffey said. "Some had a lack of focus. Some weren't sure about education after high school."
The conversations took place in the afternoon, with the Westborough students gathered around a cell phone, while the Roscoe students joined via a classroom computer during math class.
"It was a little awkward at first, but Mrs. Perryman gave us tips on how to relate to them. Once we started to share, they opened up to us. We talked about things that they are interested in," Riela said. "We found that they wanted to join the conversation. They wanted to talk to us. They looked at us as older friends."
"We didn't specifically talk about school, but we are encouraged to talk about it. We worked it into the conversations," Coffey noted. "The kids started out saying they didn't like school and that they would rather talk about their interests. They would drive the conversation."
The pair shared that the Missouri students were especially interested in the differences between their towns and schools. They marveled at the size of the Massachusetts high school, and they talked about how much they enjoyed taking a break from math class.
"After a big snow here in Massachusetts, they wanted to talk about that," Riela said. "So, we turned the phone around and showed them the snow. They kept saying, 'That's so cool.'"
With time, the younger teens became comfortable talking about schoolwork and even shared what they were doing for their science fair projects.
"We could see that the students were more engaged by the end of the school year. Their guidance counselor could see that, too," Coffey said.
"Some of the kids had issues with each other. We could see that early in the year," Riela recalled. "By the end of the year, they became more friendly with each other. It was cool to see that."
To end a successful school year of mentoring, the Westborough team brought in fellow student Kofi Dadzie, a slam poetry master who competes nationally. "That was great," Riela said. "We could hear the entire math class clapping. We could see the guidance counselor and the entire 8th grade class. They were all nodding and smiling. They said, 'We love working with you.'"
The Roscoe Middle School guidance counselor told the boys the Roscoe kids looked forward to the chat sessions each week and wanted to do it again.
Creating successful outcomes
The program accomplished what it set out to do. The older teens gained leadership and community service experience. They learned to develop relationships with partnering schools, and they created a resume-worthy activity for college applications and future employment.
The younger students found support for their schoolwork from a group of role models. They learned communication skills and respect for each other, and they had a chance to learn about school in a different American town.
What makes this program unique is that it costs nothing to implement and takes only 15 minutes a week to achieve.
As Massachusetts ambassadors for On Giants Shoulders Riela and Coffey are now working to expand the program to other schools in the Commonwealth.
"It's easy to get a program started," Coffey said. "Information is on the website, and Chelsea is great about guiding you to build the program."
Teachers, too, are encouraged to contact program coordinators for information on involving at-risk students. Participating schools can be from the same school district or different school systems across the United States and Canada.
"The organization is a guide," Riela said. "You can run your program any way you want. You have the freedom to make it grow."