A Lesson for All: SHU Students Mentor at Winthrop School
In keeping with Sacred Heart University’s mission of giving to the community both near and far, students from the University are enriching the lives of young people at Bridgeport’s Winthrop School through the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program (J-Z AMPTM).
Founded by the Zimmermann Foundation, J-Z AMP, or AMP for short, aims to help at-risk youngsters in urban areas. The program is unique because it’s a long-term commitment for both older and younger students as it spans throughout the students’ middle school careers. The program is just one part of Sacred Heart University’s commitment to service learning, and the goal is to help middle school students achieve higher levels of scholarship and provide early exposure to the college experience.
“We want to encourage them to aspire not only to graduate from high school, but from college as well and to develop long-term goals,” said Maura Cook, assistant director of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning at Sacred Heart.
The program pairs two Winthrop students with one mentor from Sacred Heart for a three-year commitment on the part of both mentor and mentees. Sacred Heart first started participating in the mentoring program over a decade ago in 2001.
The folks at the Zimmermann Foundation support AMP because they recognize that the need is great and is not being met. “This program has a proven record of improved graduation rates among at-risk students. Over 10 years of research, we’ve documented an aggregate 85 percent graduation rate among AMP participants in three cities,” said John C. Zimmermann, MJZ Fund president and J-Z AMP co-founder. “We know of nothing else that produces this kind of academic success rate for underserved, at-risk students. There should be an AMP in every middle school in the country!”
Cook said the middle school students are selected based on results of state standardized scholastic tests and classroom performance. “Some students are scoring below average for their grade level in the areas of reading and math. They’re struggling to complete assignments, and they need that extra push and help,” she said.
She said students from Winthrop who take part in the mentoring program grow leaps and bounds with help and guidance from their Sacred Heart mentors. “For the first time, through this program, students see that they have a future. They have a choice on where they go to high school. Their future is boundless.”
The mentoring experience has proven to be enriching and powerful for both groups of students. One Sacred Heart University student described the three years of mentoring as “life-changing.” For most of the mentors, the experience and knowledge gleaned from the mentoring program is just as rich as it is for their young protégés.
“From taking part in this program, I have learned to become more persistent and patient when working with adolescents. I’ve learned to take a step back and also appreciate the after-school programs I attended while growing up,” said Sherrod Williamson ’13 who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Williamson, who has been involved with the program since 2010, observed that the cohort of students they’ve worked with from Winthrop have grown tremendously since they began working together. “Some gains that I have noticed in the students’ academic growth is that by pushing the importance of education, these children have learned to care about their grades and want to do better for themselves,” she said. “Socially, I’ve seen these kids mature and hold close relationships with older people – something not all children have the opportunity to do, especially if they don’t have an older sibling to learn from.”
AMP has impacted Williamson’s career path as he has decided he wants to focus his career on working with adolescents ranging from 11 to 18 years of age. Would he recommend the AMP program to his peers? Unequivocally. “Not only do the kids mature from start to finish, but I believe the mentors do as well.”
For Brittany Griebel ’13, AMP has underscored the difference an individual can have on a child’s life. “It is truly amazing watching these children grow and mature, knowing that you’ve aided them in this process over their entire middle school career,” said Griebel of Northport, N.Y. “At the end of the day, it is a wonderful feeling knowing that you’ve been able to change a child's life for the better.”
Like Williamson, Griebel saw the students she worked with gain strength in both academic and social areas. “A lot of these children don’t have the academic support at home that they so desperately need, so we are able to give them this needed support. You see an incredible increase in their grades, because they have learned to ask questions and get help when they need it, and they know they need to do all of their work to be successful.”
Griebel believes the program is powerful and recommends it because it allowed her to grow and exposed her to new people and experiences. For example, one of her mentees used to bully her peers, and Griebel and others worked with her to show how it adversely affects others and that the behavior is unacceptable. “She did a complete 180 and is now president of her eighth-grade class and a member of the anti-bullying committee.”
Natasha James ’12, who grew up Bridgeport, said living in an urban area prepared her to work in the diverse environment that the mentoring program offers. It also gave her a window into her own childhood and allowed her to better relate to the students at Winthrop.
“It broadens your horizons to a lot of things,” said the criminal justice major. “Nowadays, many kids are drawn to drugs, gangs, sex and violent environments. When I was a child, violence was out of control in the area where I lived. Today, things have calmed down, but there is still a ways to go to improve the community. I understand that and can relate to these children, because I was sitting in their seat once.”
James, like her peers, has learned the art of patience through mentoring and even learned how to be an advocate on behalf of the students she has mentored. “We find that parents are having children at a young age, and they don’t know the ins and outs of the school system,” she observed. “This can cause students to miss out on the opportunities that are offered to them. My mentees have learned to believe in themselves and gain the confidence they need when achieving anything they put their mind to. They have learned to continue to move forward and hold their head up during any situation that comes their way.”