Middle school can be rough.
It's a time of emotional, academic, physical, social and psychological changes. And adult mentors can help.
That's why the "Be a 6th Grade Mentor" (BA6GM) program began in Pittsburgh Public Schools, and why it will now be called "Be a Middle School Mentor."
The program "is focused on exposing children to career opportunities, to educational opportunities beyond high school, and on being Promise-ready by high school," said Charles Howell, mentor coordinator at Mount Ararat Community Activity Center, one of the program's partners, referring to the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program.
In 2009, city schools, the United Way and six other organizations formed BA6GM. That year, 225 sixth-grade students deemed by their respective schools to be "at risk but likely to benefit from the program" were paired with adults who volunteered to mentor.
One hundred of the initial group continued participating in the program.
"As we talked to mentors and schools, they wanted us to grow it to include seventh and eighth grades as well," said Damon Bethea, United Way of Allegheny County's mentoring project director.
Mentors and students meet once a week at the student's school. All pairings meet in the same supervised room and may participate in group activities.
Twelve schools in Pittsburgh are involved. This year, 450 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are expected to participate.
"[In middle school], you're at the age when kids want to fit in. You want to find your identity but you also want to be liked by your peers," said Maria Bethel, the disruptive properties coordinator for the City of Pittsburgh who holds a slew of volunteer positions, including being a mentor at Sterrett Academy.
Ms. Bethel, a mother of three, added that some parents are busy just trying to make ends meet. "When you have a mentor in that school, your child has the extra help they need. It allows the community to take a vested interest in our children."
More program participants became Promise-eligible by grade point average, according to a study of the program last year by the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center.
The Pittsburgh Promise was established in 2006 by superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
It gives up to $40,000 toward college in Pennsylvania to students enrolled in the Pittsburgh Public Schools since ninth grade with a 90 percent attendance record and at least a 2.5 GPA.
While the study showed that BA6GM seemed to have little effect on school attendance or disciplinary incidents, 75 percent of participants reported feeling that the program helped them see why school was important.
The intangibles are just as important, said Miguel Feitosa, a software engineer at UPMC's technology development center.
Mr. Feitosa added that the program gives mentors and students "an opportunity to have a relationship with someone that is very different from you: a child in the sixth grade and an adult in the middle of his working life. It's an exchange, not 'helping.' "
Mr. Howell suggested that mentors should not go in to the program with the expectation of "saving" a child.
"The one thing I say to our mentors is that we are helping students to find who their best self is, and press them toward that," he said.
For more information, visit: www.bea6thgradementor.org or call the United Way help line at 211.
Correction, updated Aug. 19: An earlier version of this story suggested that all eligible graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools could receive $40,000 toward college from The Pittsburgh Promise. But only students who begin at kindergarten can receive that amount. A student enrolled from first grade can receive a maximum of $38,000; from sixth grade, $34,000; from ninth grade, $30,000. (Students enrolled after ninth grade are not eligible.) See pittsburghpromise.org/earn.php for details.
Maggie Neil: Maggie firstname.lastname@example.org.