Mentors help students grow
Two decades ago, pediatric social worker Chaya Kaplan met an 8-year-old boy who became a lifelong friend. “T.B.” was a student she tutored through a program for disadvantaged children run by the Howard County Public School System and the Department of Social Services. He was one of eight children being raised by his grandmother.
“I tutored/mentored T.B. weekly for about five years, and, with his grandmother’s permission, took him on trips to D.C. I was taking with my own children,” Kaplan, now 80, said in an email to the Beacon. “We stayed in touch over the years, and eventually my husband and I were invited to his wedding.”
The opportunity to build a lifelong relationship with a student helped Kaplan, a Columbia resident, realize that many elementary and middle school students in Howard County could benefit from a mentor, whether in group academic tutoring or just positive, one-on-one interactions to help students develop confidence and self-esteem.
“I could see the value of the intervention,” Kaplan said, “and I decided — with the support of interested members of the Howard County School System, the Howard County Department of Social Services and at times the Howard County Police Department — to continue supporting mentoring for many years.”
Together with Joseph Willmott, Kaplan started A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring in 2003, initially as a community service project through the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center. (A-OK stands for “Assist Our Kids”.) Later Kaplan and Willmott took over running A-OK on their own as an all-volunteer organization.
In 2009 the Howard County school system wanted to formalize their partnership with A-OK, so Kaplan took it from a small volunteer-run organization to a formal nonprofit. She served as executive director until she retired in 2015.
The organization’s essential mission, then and now, is to build strong relationships between the mentor and student that enable students to feel valued and help them succeed.
The school system partners with several community-based tutoring and mentoring organizations. A-OK works with students at some elementary and middle schools while also participating in afterschool programs, such as the Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP), Bridges Across Howard County and BSAP Saturday Math Academy.
High success rate
Today A-OK has 120 volunteers who mentored 516 students during the 2019-20 school year, 116 through one-on-one mentoring sessions and 400 in group sessions. In its 2019-20 report on school partnerships, Howard County Public Schools reported that 90% of teachers saw academic progress in students with mentors.
“A-OK mentors build positive relationships with school staff as they provide consistent academic support,” said Brian Bassett, spokesperson for the school system.
“With their support, we are able to individually assist more students with homework and tutoring.”
A-OK Mentoring’s current executive director, Amanda Mummert, said that volunteers “work one-on-one with students each week to help with homework or talk through what’s happening at home.” They also work in group settings to lead homework clubs and reading centers.
Mummert, A-OK’s third director, took over in April of 2020 from Susan Berger, who filled the role of executive director after Kaplan retired in 2015.
Mentoring via Zoom
Of course, when schools closed during the pandemic, volunteers could no longer meet with students in person.
“As with every organization, A-OK Mentoring has had to pivot as schools have shut down and education has moved to virtual platforms,” Mummert said.
Unfortunately, since last March fewer students have participated virtually than in person. Mummert suspects kids are burned out by on-screen interactions (known as “Zoom fatigue”) or that parents haven’t had time to sign up.
Natalie Rook, 70, has been volunteering with A-OK since 2006. She typically meets one-on-one with a student once a week. This past year, she has met with her student via Zoom.
While meeting virtually has had its challenges, there have been perks. During in-school session, for instance, Rook wouldn’t always get a lot of time with her mentee because of various school activities.
“Online has been nice because we always get our full hour together,” she said.
Rook spends some of that time helping her mentee with schoolwork. “She got behind on a lot of work, especially in the beginning of the school year,” Rook said.
But they also play online games, a substitute for the time they used to spend playing board games and making crafts if they were meeting in person.
“It’s been a different year,” Rook said, “but we have been able to make it work.”
Rea Goldfinger, who joined as a mentor in 2006 and currently serves as A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring’s administrator, has been impressed with this year’s overall success.
“When you see mentoring relationships work virtually, you know they’re strong relationships,” Goldfinger said. “Our volunteers really are wonderful.”
Mummert hopes schools will allow mentors back into the buildings this fall, but that decision depends on what is happening with the pandemic.
“It was such a vibrant program, and I have a lot of hope we’ll be able to pick back up,” she said.
Looking for upbeat volunteers
Many of the mentors involved with A-OK are older and retired or have a disability and thus aren’t working during the day, according to Mummert. Some, but not all, are retired teachers or social workers. “We also have mathematicians, engineers, sales professionals, and more,” Mummert said.
During a typical year, volunteers undergo quarterly training sessions on how to help students with not only math and reading, but self-esteem and other psychological issues.
“In anticipation of seeing students facing mental health challenges as they re-enter school post-pandemic, we’ve booked experts to talk about mental health and anxiety this coming year,” Mummert said. “We want to make sure volunteers are prepared with the tools they need.”
Although they don’t know whether they’ll be in schools in the upcoming year, A-OK is continuing to accept volunteer applications and is looking for people to serve on the organization’s board of directors.
All volunteers are fingerprinted and undergo a background check. A background in education isn’t necessary.
“We’re looking for volunteers that have interest, can support students for a year or more and are willing to be upbeat,” Mummert said.
Rook is one of several volunteers who had experience working as a reading tutor before she joined A-OK. She quickly found the A-OK experience a bit different from that of an academic tutor.
“There’s more mentoring,” Rook said. “You’re working with kids who might have issues at home and might need more support.”
The time and effort are well worth it, she said.
“You don’t think you’re doing anything for the students, and then you get a glowing letter from the teacher saying how much they’ve improved,” Rook said. “The kids really bond and connect with you.”
For more information about volunteering, visit aokmentor.org.