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Opinion: Why Schools should Make Mentoring a Top Priority

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image of Emmet Campos
Emmet Campos (right) with a student leader at the biannual Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board meeting last July.

In just a few weeks, students will embark on their first day of school—the one day of the year when everyone in the classroom starts off with a clean slate. For most students, this is a time of hope and possibilities.

However, for many of our students of color—particularly males—the motivation to turn over a new leaf just isn’t there in large part because of the residual effects of the “summer brain drain.” All of these trappings stem from a lack of resources that are critical their success, such as under-resourced schools, quality extracurricular programming and race-based and socioeconomic obstacles they face daily in their lives.

Research has shown that mentoring can significantly bridge this gap. We must provide these young men with as many opportunities as possible to work with mentors, either undergraduate students or with successful professionals who come from shared cultural backgrounds and social experiences.  And now as minorities are the majority in U.S. classrooms (65 percent of AISD students are non-whites), all schools must place mentoring programs as a key educational strategy at the top of their priority lists.

A 2013 study titled “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes,” shows that mentoring provides students with positive role models who can impart critical social skills and positive academic attitudes. Working in education for more than 30 years, I’ve seen these positive changes happening with my students when they’re working alongside a person who is invested in their social and emotional development and academic success in a meaningful way.

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Campos presenting to students participating in the 2016 Summer Academy, a Project MALES program that provides mentoring and enrichment activities to underserved students of color.

In addition to watching them excel in school, at home, and in their communities, I also see mentees assuming leadership skills and some “paying it forward” by becoming mentors to their peers.  When I see this happening, I know that these bright young men are on their way. We need to expand this new cycle of success by connecting male students with mentors who look like them and share similar experiences and can show by example that they too can be a success story.

Many people ask me, “Why focus on men of color? Aren’t their female peers also in need of support and focus?” It’s true that young women of color deal with the similar systematic inequalities, such as under-resourced schools, high teacher attrition rates and inexperienced teachers. However, young Latino and African American men have even lower persistence and graduation rates, in high school and college. They are also overrepresented in special education classes, and are more likely than their female students to be suspended or expelled.

As I said before, a large part of the problem is that they lack Latino and African American male role models in their schools. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education, male teachers of color comprise only a small fraction of all instructors (black males make up only 2 percent) in K-12 schools.  Without successful male role models, many male students of color may become socially and culturally disconnected—and even alienate—leading to poor school performance.

Change can only happen if we all act collectively to address this crisis. That’s the goal of the Texas Male Leadership Summit, an annual event hosted by the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT Austin. The two-day event (held at UT Austin on Aug. 11-12), brought in more than 200 students from ISDs, community colleges and universities from across the state of Texas. Throughout the many college and career readiness activities, students have the unique opportunity to work alongside a broad network of mentors –from fellow students to UT faculty and staff to community leaders—who are all focused on helping them achieve personal and academic success.

Although the focus of the consortium and summit is to help Texas educational institutions implement research and evidence-based intervention strategies for their men of color, we know that other states are seeking to address this national imperative.

To this end, we are also partnering with national projects, such as President Obama’s national initiative, My Brothers Keeper. It is incumbent on us to keep these young men—who will soon comprise a large percentage of our workforce— on the path to success and become productive members of society, not only here in Texas but in other states as well.

Emmet Campos is the director of Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, education pipeline programs within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.