When my San Diego County elementary school pivoted to distance learning as the pandemic swept California in March, the Encinitas Unified School District where I work came up with a surprisingly effective mentorship program where music and art teachers and other school staff members delivered extra help to our students, including English learners.
I count my participation as one of my most rewarding experiences in 20 years of teaching. Beyond delivering lessons, mentoring can help schools create a sense of community and offer extra academic, technological and emotional support many students received on campus.
Prior to being a mentor, I conducted weekly online lessons as the third-grade music teacher for the district, but beyond those formal classes I was not interacting with students during the lockdown.
I was just like the kids — unhappily disconnected from the school community that made up a huge part of my life.
As soon as I started mentoring Vanessa Fuentes, a second grade English language learner, my “funny teacher” persona re-emerged. My three daughters saw me laughing and smiling again — something they hadn’t seen much since the lockdown began.
The district recruited mentors from employees whose duties had changed or been sidelined when schools closed in March to stop the spread of coronavirus. The district reassigned them as mentors and then trained and paired with students the science, music, yoga, P.E. or other teachers who taught special subjects but did not have their own classroom, staff who normally ran the before and after-school programs, and instructional aides, as well as monitors who once supervised lunchtime activities and campus safety.
Mentors learned how to use Zoom and navigate the digital curriculum, established relationships with families, and worked up to 90 minutes daily with the student they were mentoring. They facilitated communications between teachers, parents and students, and provided a weekly summary and contact log to the teacher.
My job was not to make Vanessa finish every assignment, but to help her do some of each, all while finding personal connections to the curriculum and each other. We often used up our full 90 daily minutes together.
For example, through Zoom technology, I could see her room was filled with wonderful paintings, all hers. Her dad sent me a photo of the art, and I forwarded it to her teacher, who sent her a message telling her how special they were.
My Zoom background featured an Egyptian tomb wall. She wanted to know what it was, so we researched the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.
Vanessa would crawl into her reading fort on her balcony and work on her English fluency with me while her mom made enchiladas.
Word problems with sea turtles led into multimedia explorations of the lifecycle of turtles, their habitat and what preys on them (tiger sharks!)
She needed to make a list of verbs, so I chased my puppy with my laptop camera. What was the dog doing? Put it on the list!
Vanessa’s attention span was amazing: Usually, second graders get antsy after 20 minutes, but we’d often work together for more than an hour straight. If we lost our Zoom connection, she’d call me every 30 seconds until I re-established it. And I’d work just as hard to restore it.
Vanessa felt special getting the academic and emotional support she needed. I, by giving it, felt a renewed sense of purpose.
The mentorship program was designed by Leslie Wright, coordinator of enrichment programs, and Julie Schlueter, director of curriculum, instruction and accountability.
Many of our English-learner parents speak Spanish but little or no English and aren’t well-informed about computers. Some can’t work at home. For them, helping their child access the digital curriculum, answering homework questions and contacting their child’s teachers can be a challenge. Principals and reading specialists referred these students to Wright and Schlueter, who tapped the district’s bilingual support staff as mentors.
Mentors participated in weekly Zoom meetings as a group. One mentor presented an incentive chart created to help motivate a student. Another talked about how allowing her student to choose the mentor’s Zoom background made the student look forward to the meetings. Others shared their tech challenges. If the group couldn’t solve them, the IT staff took up the job.
With families and teachers requesting more mentors, the district added its 41 enrichment teachers to the program, ending with 123 mentors supporting 308 students.
Some worked with kids from their own campus, and some worked with kids from other schools. Mentors worked with one to four students. They spent seven to eight hours a week working directly with each student, and another two to three hours on other mentor duties. Mentors retained the same pay and hours as they had prior to the lockdown.
In a time of uncertainty, these specially trained staff helped create a symbiotic relationship between students, teachers and parents that helped everyone recapture a sense of consistency and community.
Distance learning will resume in our district in a few days, as will the mentorship program. With any luck, Vanessa and I will continue our work together.
Jon Schwartz teaches music at Encinitas Unified School District in San Diego County. When the district moved to distance learning in March, he began teaching music online to all 3rd-graders in the district.
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