Mentors and Friends
It’s 4:10 p.m. and a bus from Tippit Middle School has pulled up near the Olin Building right on time. About 20 students get off the bus and are met by a group of Southwestern students who escort them to Room 305 in the Olin Building. The students grab packages of granola bars off a desk at the front of the room and settle in for two hours of studying, learning and fun with their Southwestern mentors. The afternoon ends with a hands-on CPR demonstration by an EMT from the Pflugerville Fire Department.
It’s just another afternoon of Operation Achievement, a mentoring program for middle school students that Southwestern has been running for nearly 25 years in partnership with the Georgetown Independent School District.
Southwestern officials thought they might have to discontinue the program next year due to a budget shortfall, but a recent gift from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation of Minnesota will enable the university to continue offering it for at least five more years.
“We’re thrilled the program will be able to continue,” said Joni Ragle, a retired middle school teacher who has run the program since 2005. “This program is a win-win for everyone.”
Operation Achievement serves students from all three middle schools in Georgetown.
Each school has a different afternoon they send students to campus – Tippit on Tuesdays, Benold on Wednesdays and Forbes on Thursdays. This fall, a total of 70 middle school students are participating in the program. Most students are recommended for the program by their fifth grade teachers, counselors or parents. Students who are selected for the program stay in it for all three years of middle school – sixth through eighth grade.
While some students are recommended for the program because they need extra help with their school work, others are recommended because they have suffered a death in the family, their parents are going through a divorce or one of their parents is deployed overseas with the military. Ragle said the program helps students face difficulties such as these by providing them with mentors who serve as positive role models and by teaching them problem-solving skills.
“Some kids just need other ‘kids’ to talk to, to relate better to,” said Becky Loera, a 7th grade teacher at Benold Middle School who serves as that school’s coordinator for the Operation Achievement program. “Sometimes adults are not the ones they want to go to for some things. The Southwestern students can fill that need for our students.”
Loera has had both of her daughters go through the program. Many Southwestern employees have enrolled their children in the program as well. Ben Nava, a groundskeeper in Physical Plant, has had all four of his children participate in the program. His youngest son, Joseph, is currently in the program.
“Joseph has been waiting a long time to be able to participate,” Nava said. “He was so excited when he got his application and was accepted. He really enjoys talking with his mentor, doing his homework and doing the different activities. Our children have been fortunate to be a part of Operation Achievement and to have Southwestern fund such a great program.”
The positive social experiences Operation Achievement provides seems to work when it comes to academic achievement. Over the past six years, Ragle said 76 percent of the participants in the program have shown improvement in at least one subject.
“Having a positive role model is an immeasurable advantage for a middle school child,” said Amy Reid, an eighth grade teacher at Forbes Middle School who serves as that school’s Operation Achievement coordinator.
Operation Achievement is a student-run organization with six students who serve as “staff supervisors” and three who serve as lead mentors. The entire staff formulates policies and procedures for the program and plans and implements all the activities. Three of the staff supervisors serve as liaisons with the middle schools. These students are responsible for getting assignments from the middle school teachers for their students and keeping those teachers informed about their students’ progress as well as communicating with parents and mentors.
Another 50-85 Southwestern students from a variety of majors serve as mentors in the program each semester. In 2010-2011, 104 Southwestern students gave a total of 3,275 volunteer hours to the program.
Sherry Adrian, chair of the Education Department, said Operation Achievement is an integral part of her department. All students seeking teacher certification must engage in a 20-hour intercultural experience and Operation Achievement is a primary option for completing this requirement.
“Operation Achievement is vital to our department for the opportunities it provides to our students, and because it aligns with our department’s mission of educating and supporting students in the public schools.” Adrian said. “The students in our program have a commitment to the teaching profession and find their work with the GISD students a positive way to extend teaching and learning beyond the university and K-12 classroom. Another benefit of Operation Achievement is that it demonstrates how teaching is more than instructional strategies and content − teaching is about relationships and the impact that student-teacher connections have on student success.”
Elizabeth Grenadier, a sophomore education major, said her experience as a mentor for Operation Achievement will be invaluable in her future career as a teacher.
“I knew coming into college that I wanted to try to become a teacher, but I was beginning to doubt this decision when I entered Operation Achievement,” Grenadier said. “But then something really wonderful happened! My mentee and I began connecting and really improving his study habits and approach to school. Working with him gave me such a boost in confidence. Because of Operation Achievement, I went from a reluctant education major to knowing exactly what I want to teach and what level. I have never been more sure of my career choice.”
Sophomore education major Lindsey Ruther said her experience with the Operation Achievement program also solidified her choice to be a teacher. “Operation Achievement has been a very special addition to my experiences as an education major,” Ruther said. “It is not only wonderful field experience, but it really shows how helping a student with school work can help in countless other ways, too. We aren’t just helping with math problems, we are changing lives for the better. We are building relationships with these students that in turn help with self-confidence, academic success and peer relations. I just can’t wait to help kids like my mentee every day!”
In addition to the mentors, many others at Southwestern contribute to the success of the Operation Achievement program. Each week’s session includes an “enrichment activity” such as fossil hunting along the San Gabriel River or pumpkin painting for Halloween. Many Southwestern faculty, staff and students have helped with these enrichment activities. Science classes have led hands-on experiments, coaches and athletes have offered sports clinics, the Music Department has let the students come hear rehearsals, the Theatre Department has provided tickets for plays, and the Police Department has taught self-defense classes.
“These activities are opening up whole new worlds to these kids,” Ragle said.
Each semester, the students also do a community service project. Last year, they sent care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and organized a book drive for children in Jamaica. This year they plan to send holiday cards to children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and conduct another book drive that will benefit students in Africa through the Libraries for Love program.
The program culminates each spring with an “All-Campus Day,” in which participants tour the Southwestern campus, attend classes with their mentors, eat in the cafeteria and see what a college dorm is like.
Ragle said many participants in the Operation Achievement program go on and apply for the Upward Bound program at Southwestern, which helps prepare first-generation high school students for college. A few students have gone all the way from Operation Achievement to Upward Bound to Southwestern. “Some Operation Achievement mentors enjoy their students so much they volunteer to mentor the same students in Upward Bound,” Ragle said.
Ragle said many Southwestern students volunteer for Operation Achievement not having any intention of becoming teachers, but they have such a positive experience with the program that they change their mind.
That’s what happened to Jasmine Thomas, a senior theatre and communication studies major. Over the course of her years at Southwestern, she said Operation Achievement has turned what was originally just a hobby into a career.
“I have always enjoyed teaching and working with children, but being an integral part of an organization such as Operation Achievement opened my eyes to the benefits of being − and my calling to be − a teacher,” she said.
Because of her participation in Operation Achievement, Thomas was contacted by Teach for America, a highly competitive program that places college graduates as teachers in low-income communities. She had her final interview for the program Oct. 17 and will hear in November if she has been accepted.
“Operation Achievement has immensely prepared me for this type of work,” Thomas said. “Having worked with younger students, having supervised around 50 mentees/mentors on a weekly basis, having maintained contact with teachers, parents and students via email and phone, and having led academic endeavors as well as outside the classroom learning enrichment activities, I feel I am prepared to graduate from Southwestern and enter the work force as a teacher and as a corps member for Teach for America.”
Stacey Porter, a senior history major who also has been involved with Operation Achievement since her first year at Southwestern, also has made it to the final stage of interviews for Teach for America this year. She said she was influenced to apply for the program by two former Operation Achievement mentors who joined Teach for America in 2010 – Sarah Cromwell and Robin Pulliam.
“Before Operation Achievement, I intended to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D. in history,” Porter said. “However, after being part of the Operation Achievement staff and seeing qualitative and quantitative data on just how much of a positive impact a program like Operation Achievement has on underserved children, I have decided to go into education. I want to be a teacher who helps give children who have been labeled as ‘hopeless’ or ‘delinquent’ the excellent education they deserve.”
As an example, Porter points to a girl she met a year ago as a seventh grader who seemed unfocused and unmotivated. At the beginning of this semester, she had only a 71 in algebra, but when Porter saw her grade on her next progress report, that 71 had been replaced by an 83. “I asked her how she’d done it, and she just looked at me seriously and explained that it was her hard work and help from her Operation Achievement mentor that helped get her grade up,” Porter said. “Now her goal is to receive an A this year in algebra. Her determination, drive and success is why I work for OA, and why I know my life’s work will be in education.”