Usually education officials talk about the achievement gap – the stubborn, persistent disparities that keep students of color from catching up to their white peers.
But in socioeconomically disadvantaged districts like Kansas City Public Schools, there’s also a mentoring gap. An estimated one in three young people reach the age of 19 without having a mentor to serve as a positive adult role model.
“Many people understand about my background, what I had to overcome to stand behind this podium,” Superintendent Mark Bedell said, addressing a crowd of students, parents and volunteers at a kickoff event for the district’s Success Mentors initiative Tuesday night.
“I had a lot of positive adult advocates come into my life at the right time.”
Bedell, the oldest of eight kids, was the only one of his siblings to graduate from high school. Today, he only remembers the first name of the man who taught him how to drive.
“But I tell my wife, if we were to hit the lottery, become multi-millionaires, I’d track him down. Thank him. Because he didn’t have to do that,” Bedell said.
He thanked the volunteers in the room because they didn’t have to be there, either.
This year KCPS is launching a district-wide mentoring program as part of My Brother's Keeper, which was started in 2014 by President Barack Obama to address absenteeism. KCPS spokeswoman Natalie Allen says the district wants to enroll 350 to 400 students in the program by December. For now, KCPS is focusing its efforts on students who are chronically absent.
Bedell acknowledged that in the past, the provisionally-accredited KCPS has struggled to do right by kids.
“This is a school district that has been through a lot in the last 30 years,” Bedell said. “Been through a lot of superintendents. Been through a lot of turmoil with the Board of Education. Been through a lot of employee turnover, staff moving in and out of the district. We have a lot of kids that don’t have a lot of consistency.”
Bedell says he wants KCPS students who don’t have that consistency at home to be able to find it with nurturing adults at their schools.
Isaias Polanco, a sophomore at Northeast High School, participated in the Success Mentors pilot last year. With mentor Roger Franks, Polanco picked up trash at the school and had lots of conversations with his peers about what it's like to have a mentor.
“Meeting other students and kids, finding out what they believe is good for their school, it’s good to do for the school,” Polanco said. “We set a good vibe.”
Polanco says he’s encouraged his classmates to sign up for the program. Many of them met their mentors Tuesday evening at a “match day” dinner the district hosted. It was also a chance for mentors to meet their mentee’s family and swap contact information.
KCPS connects kids with mentors through other programs, too. There are about 1,000 Lead To Read volunteers working to improve literacy and establish rapport with students.
The district, which released a new strategic plan in August, has repeatedly said it will need community support for continued improvement.
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.