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True Blue Neighbors Youth Mentoring Program



Courtesy of True Blue Neighbors

Five days a week, Monday through Friday, 140 Kendall-Whittier Elementary students participate in a high quality afterschool program, the True Blue Neighbors Youth Mentoring Program (TBNYMP). Another 106 children are currently on the waiting list.

The program has improved academic outcomes for students, especially those who have been enrolled for multiple years.

Once students are enrolled in the TBNYMP program, they and their siblings remain in it throughout elementary school. End-of-year literacy data (May 2015) showed that 88 percent of third-grade students who had participated in TBNYMP for two years or more were reading at a “proficient” level for third grade compared with 35 percent for all Kendall-Whittier third-grade students.

At a time when educators and policy-makers are looking for what works to improve academic outcomes for students, TBNYMP has found a successful model for Kendall-Whittier’s predominately Hispanic population. A high percentage are English Language Learners (ELL) and are on Individual Education Plans (IEP).

The TBN Youth Mentoring Program was established at Kendall-Whittier in 2011, serving 70 students, but it really got some muscle when it was awarded a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant in August 2014. The $1.2 million grant (over five years) provided space for twice as many children and gave organizers the ability to hire seven certified teachers, one art teacher and two substitutes. The funds enabled TBNYMP to hire seven teaching assistants and to contract with outside youth-focused programs and partners.

 “We don’t want to mirror the school day,” said Olivia Landrum, program director for TBNYMP. “We show the kids opportunities and offer a lot of hands-on activities.” We have a good mix of reading, art, community gardening. TU faculty [offer] photography, Spanish.”

Children experience enrichment through fine arts instruction, they learn about nutrition and have access to healthy foods through a community garden, and take part in character-building experiences. Each student also receives a healthy snack and a complete dinner every day. Teachers and mentors also provide instruction and support in literacy and core academic subjects.

Landrum coordinates partnerships with FAB Lab, the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance, social services and, recently, with COX Communications, allowing TBNYMP to provide 70 Chromebooks to families.

“It’s a way to bridge the digital divide for low-income families,” said Danielle Hovenga, director of community engagement. In addition to the Chromebooks, the families receive in-home Internet and on-going technology training. “Our hope is that families really use it [for things such as] resume writing or finding the nearest doctor. They can use it to get on Power School.”

“Parents love the (TBNYMP) program,” Landrum said. “They bond here.”

Some parents are so attached to the program that they’ve become assistant teachers.

“We provide support for the entire family,” said Mike Mills, associate dean for community relations in the Office of Public Affairs & Economic Development at The University of Tulsa. “One of the successes is that Olivia is bilingual and Danielle is bilingual. Families connect with them and feel safe.”

As part of the partnership with The University of Tulsa, Mills coordinates outreach for TBNYMP and encourages TU students to intern or volunteer at Kendall-Whittier.

“It’s transformational for college students,” Mills said. “One student athlete changed his major [after mentoring through TBNYMP] because he wanted to work with kids. He felt empowered to continue this type of work. Another student was incredibly shy until we brought him to work with the kids at Kendall-Whittier. He just opened up.”

Mills said that TBNYMP underscores the University’s commitment to providing real-life experiences that align with students’ career goals.

TU Spanish Professor Elsa Plumlee requires her higher-level conversational Spanish students to work with Spanish-speaking children who are in the mentoring program. “This is the practical application of community,” she said.

TU student Grace Heaberlin volunteers with second-grader Ivan Perez every Tuesday and Thursday at Kendall-Whittier. “It’s important to be well-versed in many different cultures,” she said, “because America is such a cultural mecca.”

Recognizing that children do not live in isolation, TBNYMP uses “whole child” engagement, offering year-round programming, family dinners and enrichment events that reflect and support the unique needs of the Kendall-Whittier population. The university/school partnership is also unusual and has garnered national attention.

“This is a model that could be replicated,” Mills said. “21st Century holds us up as an example to the state.”

Despite its success, TBNYMP depends on grant money and community partnerships, which means there is no guarantee that it can continue in the same form after the grant runs out. Those involved hope to renew the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.

“We could easily have another program,” Landrum said, noting the 100 plus children who are waiting at Kendall-Whittier.

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