When James Nunn, of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Irving, Texas, first walked into the auditorium where a new initiative called Mentor2.0 was launching, he was speechless. Dozens of high school students were introducing themselves to their adult mentors, and Mr. Nunn couldn't believe what he heard -- noise.
"I mean, these were people meeting for the first time," said the program director.
In September, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh will launch the same program at Pittsburgh Brashear High School in Beechview where 120 ninth-graders will be matched with college-educated mentors who live or work in the Pittsburgh area. The adult, who must be at least 21, will commit to a minimum of two years, continuing with the assigned student through the 10th grade.
In monthly, two-hour evening events at Brashear, students and mentors will participate in large group activity with time for individual conversation.
In the remaining three weeks each month, students will engage with mentors online through a secure technological platform. The pairs will email back and forth, getting to know one another and responding to conversation prompts.
"What's unique about this pilot is that it's built into ninth-grade civics, into the school day at Brashear," said James Doyle, after-school program coordinator for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
"This generation opens up a lot more quickly online," added Maggie Giel, Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor2.0 program coordinator. "Outside of academic development, it enhances the personal relationship."
"Students feel more comfortable saying something for the first time from behind a keyboard rather than sitting across a table," echoed Mr. Nunn. "The intensity of that relationship is far greater than that of our other programs."
Big Brothers Big Sisters cites the program's flexibility as a central draw for busy professionals.
"Traditional mentoring is hard. If you're young and with a family, how do you give three to five hours, twice a month?" said CEO Jan Glick. "Truthfully, I threw it in the garbage when I first heard about it, but then I went to New York and seeing the relationships firsthand is moving. I am totally reformed."
Adults undergo a few hours of preliminary training, ranging from relationship-building skills to technological support. Additionally, monthly support sessions help mentors troubleshoot any problems that may arise.
Email prompts will help facilitate conversation and support adults as their mentees navigate academic and personal challenges -- asking questions such as, "How was your day?" to "How did you do on that math test?" The design is a product of iMentor, a mentoring program that operates in 19 schools serving low-income children in New York City.
"It is incredibly powerful for them to see a role model, for these kids to understand why college is important," said Daniel Voloch, iMentor's managing director of program design.
An understanding of the relevance of college is a key component of Mentor2.0. The Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program helps to make college more accessible to city residents who are students at city public high schools -- including Brashear and bricks-and-mortar charter schools. The Promise offers scholarships of as much as $40,000 for those who meet requirements, including a minimum grade point average of 2.5 and a 90 percent attendance rate in high school. While Mentor2.0 intentionally operates in the early years of building Promise eligibility -- ninth and 10th grades -- its coordinators' goals are far larger in scope.
"The goal is to keep them in college. If you really care about the strength of Pittsburgh, you've really got to care about these kids," Ms. Glick said.
At Brashear, the state Department of Education considers 64 percent of students economically disadvantaged. Some of those are in the bottom quarter of income, a group for which the Pell Institute estimates only 12 percent will complete a four-year degree.
High school counselors often are stretched thin. According to the New York Times, high school guidance counselors usually have about 470 students.
"We are helping to turn the college counselor function of schools around," said James Wilson, director of outreach for iMentor. "We're trying to help that one person help 500 people."
Ultimately, the initiative operates under the philosophy that any student, at-risk or not, will thrive under a greater degree of guidance.
"The belief that we hold is that anyone can benefit from such a relationship," Mr. Doyle said.
"Life is all about choices," Ms. Glick said. "We want these kids to see that given the right ones, you can go to college."
Emma S. Brown: email@example.com or 412-263-3778.