High school students from the Master's Program talk one-on-one with their mentees at Cesar Chavez Elementary.
About two years ago, CIS Site Coordinator Hilda Perez-Vargas realized that the 4th and 5th grade boys at Cesar Chavez Elementary would benefit from an after-school mentorship program. The need became evident when the male students she worked with began asking, "When are we getting a Boys, Inc. program?" in response to the Girls, Inc. program that was already running for female students at the school. They liked the idea of a boys-only club focused on social interaction and hands-on activities; they wanted a club too.
At first, Hilda wasn't sure exactly how the program would manifest, but when the Masters Program high school reached out to to her in an effort to place their own students in community service assignments, she seized the opportunity to pair them in mentorship roles with students at Cesar Chavez. Service to others, community engagement, and academic excellence are essential components of the Masters Program curriculum, making their junior and senior-level students ideal mentors for younger students.
The group began meeting after school every Friday, and the participants named it Fresh, Inc. The format was loose and relaxed at first, but evolved over time into a structured whirlwind of activities and interactions designed to increase social-emotional learning, build confidence, and maximize exposure to positive role models. In fact, the club is so popular that it's now divided into several groups, each of which rotate through four activity stations, ensuring that all participants engage in all activities.
On a typical meeting day, groups of mentors and mentees are sent off to their starting stations, one of which is a room set up for group discussion. When everyone is seated, an adult facilitator asks the older students to discuss a topic for the day, such as challenges they've faced while in school. Some talk about issues they've had with academic subjects, others about the bad decisions they've made and their ensuing regrets, and some talk about their parents or teachers. Next, the younger boys are asked to share their own challenges, and afterwards, mentors and mentees turn to each other to talk in private. For the younger boys, this is the best part -- they haven't seen their mentors for a whole week and are eager for their attention.
The second station is called the Game Room, and while some pairs opt for one-on-one games such as chess, others form into large groups and play card or board games. Time spent here is a continuation of conversations from the last station and allows the boys to engage in healthy competition and fair play with their peers.
Station three is in the school gymnasium where the boys huddle in a large group and decide on an activity. One of their favorites is a variation of Tag, and the younger boys seem to love this station in particular, laughing constantly while chasing and being chased by the older boys. Similarly, the forth and final station of the day is also for physical activity, where some boys play basketball or show off their skills on the jungle gym, while others head to the swing set and use the time to talk one-on-one about schoolwork or life in general.
When asked what the greatest benefit of Fresh, Inc. has been for participants, Hilda says it's the social skills they acquire. The group provides invaluable support, and has even served as a successful intervention tool for certain case-managed students. Two boys in particular were referred to the group after demonstrating concerning behaviors, such as getting into fights and being disrespectful to teachers. Over the last two years, they've learned from their mentors that everyone makes mistakes, and after seeing examples of thoughtful and respectful behaviors, the boys have learned how to make better decisions and take responsibility for their actions.
Hilda says the group also helps boys overcome shyness and low self-esteem, and for others, the positive influence of their mentors has inspired them to do better academically. For many students, attendance has improved as well. Fresh, Inc. was intentionally set to meet on Fridays because that is traditionally when attendance rates drop each week. Although some students would initially show up to the group after skipping school all day (a testament to the club's popularity), a rule was made that students must attend all theirFriday classes in order to participate.
Now that the school year is coming to an end, and several of the Fresh, Inc. mentors will be graduating high school, they won't be returning to the group at Cesar Chavez next year. When asked how the young mentees are responding to this, Hilda assures us that she thought of this problem in advance. Each 4th grader was paired with an 11th grade mentor, which means each boy will age out of his respective school at the same time. The 4th grader goes on to 5th grade as his 11th-grade counterpart goes on to 12th, and when the younger leaves Cesar Chavez to attend middle school, his mentor graduates high school. As a heart-warming bonus, Hilda has arranged for the young boys of Fresh, Inc. to attend the Masters Program graduation ceremony later this month.
"When the Masters Program students show up, I look at my kids' faces and it's as if they're seeing superheros. Their smiles are HUGE and they want their mentors to know EVERYTHING that's happened since the last time they met. It may be a community service project, but for the kids, it's a life changing experience. They talk about college and coming back to be mentors themselves. Our kids look up to them every step of the way."
- Hilda Perez-Vargas, CIS Site Coorinator