School districts looking for money to continue staffing

School districts looking for money to continue staffing

Rose Goodman of Mahomet has been a mentor in the Champaign school district for eight years, meeting weekly with two students who are now in middle school and high school.

"These two young people that I have will be friends for life," Goodman said.

Mentoring them has been much easier to do since the school district hired coordinators three years ago for the CU One to One Mentoring Program, she said.

The site coordinators for the elementary and middle schools recruit mentors, match them with students, help with scheduling, do background checks, provide training, and answer questions.

They also coordinate tutors and classroom volunteers, and they keep a database of volunteers, said Brenda Koester, the mentoring program coordinator for the Champaign school district.

The grant money – $200,000 per year for three years from the U.S. Department of Education – that pays for the part-time site coordinators in the Champaign and Urbana school districts and half of Koester's salary expires at the end of this school year. Koester and seven Champaign site coordinators were laid off earlier this spring, as were Urbana's three elementary school coordinators, when the districts did their annual reductions in force.

Under state law, districts must inform employees who they may not have the money to rehire next year.

Koester is concerned the school district won't continue to pay for the positions without the grant money.

The site coordinators have helped the mentoring program in the Champaign school district grow from 59 pairs of mentors and students in the fall of 2002 to more than 200 pairs now, Koester said. In Urbana, Coordinator Barbara Linder said they have increased participation from just a few mentor/pupil pairs in the elementary schools to about 50 now.

"The reason we've seen such phenomenal growth in volunteering and mentoring is because we have school-based staff. They have really created the growth," Koester said.

"Where there is not dedicated school staff, the program as it exists now and the volunteer levels will show a slow and steady decline," she predicted.

Champaign school board President Dave Tomlinson said he supports the mentoring program, and he expects next year's budget to include money for it.

"We have got a tremendous amount of e-mails from the community," he said. "We've probably received over 100 e-mails of support from parents that are involved, kids that are involved, mentors.

"We're going to fund some level of it," Tomlinson said.

The school board will discuss the program and site coordinator positions when it meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St., C.

Likewise in Urbana, school board President Mark Netter said he hopes the district can find the money to support the coordinator positions. Board member Cope Cumpston said funding for the program is a priority, but the district needs to conclude union negotiations first.

"It's a program that grew out of nothing," Cumpston said. "They turned it into a major program that has a lot of impact, and I don't think anybody wants to see it cut in any way."

Champaign and Urbana officials are looking at how they might share the costs of the program. Champaign's chief financial officer, Gene Logas, said he isn't sure yet how much money will be allocated for the program in the district's budget, but some money will be included.

"Now that it's coming directly out of the coffers of Unit 4, things might be structured a little bit differently than they were in the past to make sure we get the biggest bang for the buck," Logas said. "It may be tweaked a little bit."

Koester said she understands the district's budget constraints, but "I think this is a very cost-effective way to provide academic and emotional and behavior supports for kids."

Last fall, a University of Illinois researcher evaluated the program and found children who had mentors showed improvements in academics, attendance and behavior.

Koester said the site coordinators are crucial for the program. She said school staff, such as counselors or social workers, don't have the time to do all that the site coordinators do.

Edison Principal Joe Williams agreed. He said Edison's site coordinator, Marilyn Mastny, puts much more time into the mentoring program than his staff would be able to do.

"That is clearly what is making the difference," Williams said. "By having her, it means a lot more kids get mentoring now at middle school than previously when we didn't have a mentor coordinator."

They've also helped Brian Nudelman, who teaches composition classes at Parkland College, put his students at Garden Hills Elementary School every semester to tutor.

"I don't know if it's possible to continue the program I run without their help," he said.

Goodman said communication between school staff and mentors has greatly improved with the site coordinators. Now she knows when her students are unavailable, and she has a specific person to contact if she can't make a mentoring appointment. She said the mentoring staff also passes on information about difficulties a student may be having.

"The site coordinators tip us off," Goodman said. "They'll say, 'Your mentee is having a rough week. Maybe if you talk about this, it might help your student.' It's a whole different level up with communication.

"I would hate to see this program change in any way."

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