Clay County School District officials have poured a lot of effort into lifting Charles E. Bennett Elementary from the bottom on the county’s school rankings. Last week, staff writer Wesley LeBlanc chronicled how new principal Sheree Cagle is getting immediate results by challenging students to enjoy the education process at the Green Cove Springs school. This week, LeBlanc shows how Charles E. Bennett’s mentor program is also making a difference.
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Charles E. Bennett Elementary is working to get a minimum of a C-grade, and its newly-implemented mentor program is helping make it happen.
Because Charles E. Bennett has received D-grades for the past two years, it must achieve a C or higher to avoid a state takeover. Principal Sheree Cagle awards “Cagle Cash” for students as to spend at a school store as incentive for positive deeds. The store is just one facet of the school’s plan, and a new mentor program is looking to make better students, too.
“There’s a lot of power in mentoring,” assistant principal Laura Smith said. “It shows these children that the community cares about them. When there’s more caring, there is more positivity and when there’s more of that, there’s more success.”
Smith said the mentor program works similarly to the Cagle Store in that it enhances a students’ lives in more areas other than just academics. This is Smith’s first in the position at the elementary school and the mentor program is one of the projects she leads at the school.
She gets mentors set up with students and determine how best a mentor can be used. Some mentors help a student academically, offering up things like math tutoring sessions. Others are there for other reasons, like encouraging a student to increase their weekly attendance.
Smith remembers a particular success story where a student with an attendance rate of less than 70% was assigned a mentor to help with that problem. After just a few sessions with this mentor, that same student didn’t miss any classes last week.
“Part of it is not wanting to disappoint their mentor,” Smith said. “But it’s also about that accountability and often, our mentor might incentivize them with something so when they do, say, go to school without missing a day for a week, they receive something to let them know that we’re proud of that. We leave all of that up to the mentor.”
The mentor program at Charles E. Bennett was employed after Cagle found great success with it in other schools that she’s turned around. At one point this year, she had 300 mentors assigned to a just 400 students.
“She’s seen the power of mentoring first hand and that’s why she brought it here,” Smith said.
Smith learned of mentoring at the University of North Florida where she saw first-hand how impactful a mentor can be.
The program first began with just a handful of school district staff employees. It now has 30 mentors from the school district and another five from the community. Smith said the community’s involvement has been especially helpful in bringing this program to life.
“It’s important for our students to see the community rooting for them, willing to help them out,” Smith said. “Our community doesn’t want any child to slip through the cracks and they show that by getting involved.”
Mentors meet with their students once a week for 30 minutes to an hour, and what they do is based on the student’s needs. Smith’s job is to help determine those needs, although teachers at the school help get students get connected with mentors, too.
Smith said she’d like to see all of her students assigned a mentor. For anyone looking to get involved or donate some time as a mentor, Smith said you can call the school. A simple background screening is all that’s required and then the school will work to set you up with a student.
“This program is all about teaching the students life lessons,” Smith said. “We want to build relationships and show them that somebody cares about them and wants to see them succeed.”