A partnership between members of the justice system, education system, and community organizations is helping young people in East Baton Rouge Parish improve their school attendance and academic performance while providing their families with the support they need.
Project MADE (Make A Difference Every Day) is part of a larger effort by East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court to address school truancy, particularly among high school students. Judge Gail Grover said leaders met in late 2019 to brainstorm ways to help absent students. These efforts culminated in the High School Truancy Initiative with an truancy tribunal that included participation from school systems, community service providers, and mentorship. Strategies improved in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and most students had to switch to virtual instruction.
“We knew it was the students who would most likely fall through the cracks in a virtual setting, so we kept unplugging and kept strategizing and fine-tuning the program,” Grover said. “Looking at truancy in a holistic way, some of the key conversations have centered around mentorship and its impact on our students.”
Grover said a strong, positive mentor can help students understand that they have rights to certain educational services if they have special needs and rights in a school or district’s disciplinary process. Some may also need help accessing mental health or tutoring services. Others just need someone to listen to their concerns and motivate them.
“We know a lot of students have struggled with the inconsistency of platforms, trying to go to school virtually sometimes and in person sometimes,” said Michael “AV” Mitchell, who runs the mentorship program. “If there’s no one to hold them accountable, some of them just want to give up.”
After undergoing a background check, mentors sign up for an 18-week commitment. Mitchell said they had to call their mentee student every day for three weeks. Most calls take place in the morning before school to encourage the student to attend. After the first three weeks, calls usually occur a few times a week. There are also opportunities for mentors and mentees to participate in other activities together.
Grover said a mentee wrote a letter thanking his mentor for helping him get back on track and starting each day on a positive note while serving as a strong role model. The mentor also benefited from the experience, noting that he looked forward to their conversations and was proud of the mentee for stepping up and taking responsibility for his actions.
Mitchell said mentors should be self-motivated, self-directed, good listeners, and dedicated to giving hope to a student. Mentors must be at least 18 years old. Mitchell said they came from all walks of life, including college students, full-time parents, business leaders, law enforcement officials, business owners and more.
“We’ve had a lot of successful mentors because they didn’t necessarily fit into a traditional curriculum,” Mitchell said. “It’s a perfect outlet for them to show they care and can make a difference. It’s an 18-week commitment, but it’s not a full-time job. They can still live their lives while giving students the motivational boost they need.”
Grover said she has seen the positive impact of the truancy initiative and mentors on students. Most of those who missed dozens of days of school each year now have single-digit absences. Many also improved their grades significantly. This helped the students to become more involved in their education and to be enthusiastic about going to school.
Grover added that a larger goal of Project MADE is to help students make positive life choices and avoid the justice system. Mentors can make a difference in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We’ve found that if we can keep our kids in school, they’re less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “If we can keep them connected with school, the potential for their outcomes in life is so much better.”
Another key component of the MADE project is parental involvement, where partner Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) works with the parents of mentees to ensure that each family has a strong support structure.
“It’s a partnership and we want parents to be receptive to mentorship as well,” Grover said. “It’s essential not to leave parents out of the process.”
Anyone interested in becoming a mentor can complete an online application at www.projectmadeforyouth.com. Applications are accepted year-round. Mentors are trained by Big Buddy, a key partner in the MADE project Big Buddy organizes mentor/mentee pairing ceremonies and mentor/mentee activities.
“You can be a solo mentor or join an organization,” Mitchell said. “There are also training opportunities for people who want to go deeper.”