Red Oak ISD extends contract for mentorship program

Chris Roark
Waxahachie Daily Light
Dana Watkins, right, has been a consistent mentor for the Mentors Care program at Red Oak High School.

The Red Oak ISD Board of Trustees on Monday approved a one-year extension of its contract with Mentors Care, a local nonprofit that helps provide mentors to at-risk students.

Mentors Care started in 2009 at Midlothian High School when school leaders were looking for a way to address the high dropout rate. Later, Red Oak ISD took notice.

Four years ago Red Oak High School’s Discipline Committee had recommended a mentoring program to help at-risk students who were missing school and had poor grades and discipline problems.

After observing the program at Midlothian, ROISD partnered with Mentors Care in 2018.

Every week during the school year a mentor comes to the campus to visit with the student with whom he or she is matched. Often they come with food, but more than anything they come with open ears and support.

Brian Blackwell, managing director of Mentors Care, said many of the mentors at ROHS come from Red Oak ISD.

“That’s one of the things that makes Red Oak very unique,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell said from August through January 68 students were served by the program, and 65 of those were referred.

He said there were 52 mentors, meaning there were three or four mentors meeting with more than one student. He said mentors logged in 458 volunteer hours in that timeframe.

Who qualifies

Blackwell said a student qualifies for the program if they have any of the at-risk indicators as defined by the state of Texas. Those include being expelled, having a grade of below 70 in two or more core classes for a semester, being homeless, failing the STAAR test and more.

But Blackwell said too often students who don’t meet that criteria could still benefit from mentors. So the program established its own at-risk indicator list that includes students who have attendance issues, anger issues, anxiety/depression, grades below passing, poor self-esteem/self confidence and others.

“We don’t want anyone falling through the cracks,” Blackwell said. “A lot of times our students will qualify for the program because they’re not motivated, they’re failing classes, they have attendance issues or there’s a lack of support at home.”

Blackwell said students can also qualify if they have unchangeable at-risk indicators include death of a parent, divorce, poverty and others.

Blackwell said using the state’s at-risk indicators the majority of the students who qualify for the program are failing classes (57 percent). The student qualifies if they failed two or more courses in a semester the previous year or are failing two or more currently. All of the other reasons represent less than 5 percent.

But based on the program’s at-risk indicators, the percentages are much higher with 53 percent having grades below passing, 51 percent experiencing anxiety/depression and 29 percent having poor self-esteem/self confidence.

“There’s a lot more going on when you factor in the Mentors Care at-risk indicators,” Blackwell said.

As far as the unchanging indicators, Blackwell said 41 percent of the students have experienced divorce or a broken home. He said 10 percent have experienced the death of a parent, the most of any school district the program serves.

“It’s very beneficial to have that mentor coming in weekly,” Blackwell said.

Success in ROISD

Blackwell said the program has made a difference as it has led to improved attendance, more student engagement, higher test scores and increased graduation rates.

Blackwell said of the students who have been in the program for at least two years, 100 percent maintained or progressed in credits earned, 94 percent of seniors are expected to graduate this spring and 75 percent of all students maintained or progressed in attendance.

“A lot of assistant principals are reporting that the students they were seeing in the office aren’t coming back anymore as a result of having those mentors,” Blackwell said.

During Monday’s meeting an ROHS student praised the program’s work, saying having a mentor has helped her succeed in school.

“I didn’t have a very good home life a couple of years ago,” the student said. “It’s gotten better, and it’s made me a better person. Being able to have someone there for me that I couldn’t have before. And being able to get praised when I did something right, and it make me want to do that right thing again. Or, having my grades failing I’d have someone there to say, “Hey, come on, get your grades up.’”

She said the mentor also helped her set goals, something she said she wouldn’t have done without being in the program.

The student said if she was dealing with anxiety she could visit Katrina Keener, the program coordinator at ROHS, to help her calm down.

Keener said she has seen the impact the mentors have made on the students.

Yvonne Cook, a mentor and a teacher in ROISD, is in her second semester as a mentor. She said the two students she has mentored have different backgrounds.

“But what I’ve noticed is that what they do have in common is the need for that authentic connection,” Cook said, “and for someone to provide that consistent support.”

Blackwell said students have told him the program provides an outlet and a support system they would be lacking otherwise.

“In most cases that mentor-student relationship continues after that student graduates,” Blackwell said.

Other benefits

Besides mentoring students the program has helped connect seniors who are not going to college with 12 companies in Ellis County in hopes of getting them hired after graduation.

Blackwell said the nonprofit has also partnered with a number of organizations to help provide students in need with non-educational resources, such as food, clothes, etc.

Blackwell said the program referred students for other needs 12 times during the first semester – three times for medical needs and twice each for CPS help, housing assistance and counseling.

“If they’re not getting their needs met outside of school, they won’t be good learners once they get into school,” Blackwell said.

The contract extension will cost $42,000 from the campus fund and will cover the 2022-23 school year.

The program serves other districts such as Ferris and Palmer ISDs, as well as the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program in Waxahachie.