By John Kanelis
The Amarillo Independent School District's 55 campuses are crawling with mentors who seek to imbue the district's nearly 34,000 students with a variety of life skills that will take them well beyond Graduation Day from high school.
Are they succeeding? Denise Blanchard, AISD's community partnerships program director, is certain they are.
A mentoring that program that began as Help One Student to Succeed has morphed into America's Promise. Blanchard said that as successful as HOSTS was to the district and to the students, the time came in 2004 for a change.
Growing demands for classroom space, Blanchard said, ultimately required AISD to forgo the HOSTS program, which dedicated classrooms to HOSTS mentors. "Our (student enrollment) growth simply forced us to make use of the classroom space," Blanchard said.
She explained that HOSTS classrooms were dedicated only to the mentoring that HOSTS volunteers provided for the students. Teachers worked exclusively with HOSTS mentors.
Then the AISD enrollment growth began to put pressure on the need to put those classrooms to other uses, Blanchard explained.
That's when America's Promise took root, said Blanchard.
America's Promise became a pet project of a certain high-profile American, former U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell, a Vietnam War combat veteran who later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later served as secretary of state in the first term of President George W. Bush.
AISD adopted the America's Promise program more than a dozen years ago. Blanchard said America's Promise offers five essential commitments to students, teaching them ways to: obtain a healthy start, learn marketable skills, find opportunities to serve, becoming caring adults and provide a safe place to learn.
Whereas the HOSTS program limited mentoring to reading and math, America's Promise provides a wide range of opportunities for mentors to work with students, Blanchard said. "America's Promise allows us to custom-fit the needs of the kids to the program," she said, ticking off a list of mentoring skills dealing with social skills, math, social studies, English as a second language, language arts and reading.
"We're better able to meet the needs of the student," Blanchard said.
HOSTS came into being in 1992, according to the program's founding director, Janace Ponder, who retired from AISD in 2006.
"It was kind of a selfish reason that prompted me to start HOSTS," Ponder said, explaining that she wanted only to work about 20 hours each week. Her duties eventually added to her AISD work commitment.
Ponder approached businesses throughout the community, recruiting business officials to find mentors from their ranks. "We ended up with a lot of retirees" to serve as mentors for at-risk students, Ponder said. "It worked out beautifully for everyone," she said. "We asked them, 'Can you make a difference in a child's life?' Hey, who can't give a child 30 minutes each week?" Ponder said.
"I loved speaking to groups about HOSTS," she said. "Everyone had such good hearts," she remembered, "and our progress was fabulous. Soon, I didn't have to call the companies." She indicated that business owners were sending volunteers to work at HOSTS mentors without even being asked.
Ponder recalled the dire condition of some of the at-risk students HOSTS was mentoring. "One kid was sleeping in a sleeping bag outdoors, outside of his house, at night. In the cold and the rain," Ponder said.
Over time, though, Blanchard said, the district decided to change its mentoring focus from HOSTS to America's Promise. Each campus was obligated to pay the HOSTS parent organization a fee of $6,000 to $7,000 each school year, Blanchard said; America's Promise, she added, doesn't cost the district – or its individual campuses – any money up front.
"We have literally hundreds of mentors" in AISD, Blanchard said. She said the current mentoring program builds in a lot more flexibility for the mentors. "We have lunch buddies who mentor our kids during lunch time," she said, adding that "mentors can come and go" during the school day.
Each campus trains mentors according to the students' needs, Blanchard said. "Our training is tailored to prepare the mentors to meet the kids' needs." She said, for example, that many of the students at Margaret Wills Elementary School on Plains Boulevard are "refugees who have special needs." Wills mentors are trained to work with those students' particular needs, she said.
Karen Schneider, a teacher at Margaret Wills for the past 12 years, run the America's Promise program on a campus comprising 594 students. Roughly 45 percent of them are refugees, Schneider said, adding that they come from diverse backgrounds. "We have students from Iraq, Iran, Malaysia and Somalia," she said.
Schneider said she has 48 students enrolled in the America's Promise program at Margaret Wills, and they spend 20 minutes each week working with mentors on a whole range of subjects. The emphasis for the refugee students, she said, is learning English.
She said that eighth-grade students from St. Andrew's Episcopal School come to Margaret Wills to teach her students to play chess. "Language restrictions do not mean restrictions on intellect," Schneider said.
Schneider added that the America's Promise students at Margaret Wills go to the school library one day a week "instead of going out for recess."
Blanchard said the district is able to measure the success of the mentoring program by determining whether students become "happy and healthy" upon graduation from high school.
"We want our students, regardless of what they pursue, to have a livable wage," Blanchard said. "We want them to become successful mothers and fathers, husbands and wives," she said.
"How do we measure success? Are they happy and healthy and are they earning a wage that brings them a lifestyle they deserve?" Blanchard said.
Blanchard, a former classroom teacher, once also was a HOSTS mentor. She worked on math skills with students at Palo Duro High School. "I wanted to let my student know they had it up here," she said, pointing to her head. "My task was to give him confidence that he had the knowledge and had the confidence to succeed," she said.