Dallas gives students an extra chance for success
In Dallas, public service does not end with delivery of municipal services. Recognizing that making an investment in the education of its children will bring economic benefits in the future, Dallas provides its employees with significant incentives to get involved in local public schools. Those participating in the program allow their employees an hour each week to serve as mentors/tutors in the City of Dallas/Dallas Public Schools Mentors Project.
Scott Tims, an employee in the public works and transportation department, has been part of the program for three years and says he has enjoyed every minute of his involvement. Every Thursday he leaves the hectic world of citygovernment for an hour and enters the hectic world of three young men who have b ecome an important part of his life. “Three boys who come from backgrounds far different than mine,” Tims says. “Teaching the boys to read was only one of our challenges: one of the boys was distracted by gang pressure, another boy’s father was imprisoned when he was three years old, and the third lived in a crime-infested apartment complex.” Tims notes that the third boy later transferred to another school after a triple murder occurred at the complex.
“School-age youngsters today need additional people in their lives who support and motivate them to identify and achieve goals in life,” says City Manager John Ware, who approved employee’s leaving for an hour a week to volunteer for the program. “Improving the education of the city’s future workforce will make it easier for the city to attract new industries.”
The Partners in Education program began in August 1994 with a goal of providing trained volunteers to work one-on-one with students to improve their skills in all subject areas. The program is modeled after the National Association of Partners in Education’s School-Based Mentoring Programs. The volunteers are very important to Dallas public school system, the nation’s eighth largest according to Loraine Green Lee, executive director of community relations for the system. Of the approximately 155,000 students, almost three-fourths live below the poverty level.
“For many of our students, mere survival is each day’s primary concern,” Lee says. “Many of our students do not have an adult who has the time or can help with the child’s school work.”
In some cases the adult in the student’s family may not speak English. Even if they have the time and want to help the children with their studies, many of the adults do not have the background to help the student.
“Investing time in these children’s lives probably means more to these kids than anyone could ever know. The volunteers serve as friendly, objective sounding boards, helping students sort through the challenges facing young people today,” Lee says.
The program places as many Dallas employees as possible in the role of mentor or tutor for students. The volunteers help build self-esteem and self-confidence, motivate children to learn and serve as role models, introducing volunteerism to children. Tutors assist students in specific content areas, such as math or English.
Lee explains that volunteers also provide consistent caring attitudes and guidance as youngsters go through various challenging periods in their development.
“Each year I get new kids, but the challenges are the same: drugs, gangs, sex, etc.,” Tims says. “And somehow, you just do your best to help them through these things, all while teaching them to read.”
Dallas began its recruitment process by meeting with city department heads to develop a plan of action, Tims says. Each year, city employees receive promotional material and attend recruitment meetings.
The public schools’ department of communication conducts a two-hour training course to discuss program policies, procedures and students’ needs, as well as training objectives, strategies and materials for use in mentoring and tutoring.
During orientation, volunteers commit to working with the assigned students at least one hour each week for one school-year. All volunteers are screened, and background checks are performed to ensure the safety of the children. Local school staff match the volunteers with the students, keep up-to-date records of volunteer service and provide information about student progress.
The volunteers make a commitment to report to local schools where the principal or school staff present additional orientation and training on the specific needs of identified students, specific teaching strategies and materials. An average of 300 city employees per year have volunteered in the mentoring project since its inception in 1994, according to Ware.
School teachers and principals say that students have improved both academically and socially through the one-on-one reinforcement of mentors/tutors.
City employees who participate in the program say they consider it a very rewarding experience because it helps individuals and the city as a whole. “One child at a time, we are making a difference to the young people of Dallas, and that is our true reward,” Tims says.