Mentors help kids bridge the learning gap

The Baltimore Sun

Joshua Bower, a senior airman assigned to Fort Meade last year, struggled with reading when he was young but had the family support to overcome the problem.

"Now as an adult, I'm very much a strong reader," Bower said. "That was a pretty big turnaround."

Bower said he wanted to do the same for someone else.

He is one of seven mentors recruited from Fort Meade to volunteer at Meade High School as part of an expansion of the Summer Bridge program, which helps rising sixth- and ninth-graders who are struggling in math and reading as they make the transition to a new school.

The Summer Bridge program is available at four county high schools and six middle schools, and Meade High is pairing these students with adult mentors from the Army base who will provide guidance throughout their freshman year.

Summer Bridge students also will be assigned peer mentors once the school year starts, said Darryl Kennedy, acting principal of Meade High School.

In fact, each freshman homeroom at Meade will be assigned a student mentor from the senior class, but only the Bridges students will have their own individual mentors. Peer mentors can be just as important as adult ones, Kennedy said.

"They will talk more to their peers than adults," he said.

The mentors at Meade, which is on the Army post in West County, are a mix of active-duty military, government contractors and area business professionals.

Bower has been matched with Kevan Harris, 13, whose straight A's in math sank to a C in eighth grade at MacArthur Middle School, said his father, Kevin Harris.

Kevan was struggling in language arts, too, a fact that his father said might have been related to his son's midyear transfer from Meade Middle because of a family move. Either way, he wanted to get a handle on Kevan's school performance.

Kevan, who will play football at Meade in the fall, said he and Bower both like sports.

"My mentor is really cool," Kevan said. "We have a lot of stuff in common."

Bower said they also can talk about goals. For example, Bower is working on his master's degree in international relations while in the Air Force.

"So far it's been a very positive experience," Bower said.

The Meade Bridges program ran from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays from July 9 to 26. Teachers taught English and math, and students took workshops on topics such as organizational skills, interviewing for jobs and maintaining self-esteem. Students met with their mentors on Mondays for 45 minutes.

Kim Caspari, a real estate agent, heard about the Bridges program through the Meade Alliance, a group of professionals with business ties to Fort Meade. Caspari, who plans to attend her 25th class reunion at Meade High next year, thought the mentoring program would be a good way to reach out to current students and help improve the school's image.

Because of the short mentoring sessions, Caspari said it's been hard getting to know her shy charge, Angella Carter. Angella, 13, emigrated from Sierra Leone to Laurel in 2005. They will meet again at the school in August and then monthly throughout the school year.

"I think [Bridges] has the potential to be even better if we can be more involved with the kids," said Caspari in a phone interview.

Angella said she was able to talk to Caspari about school life and was excited to meet her student mentor.

"I think because they've been to the school, and they know what it's like," Angella said.

Rhonda Traylor, an Air Force reservist, said she had mentored women in transition from prison and drug rehabilitation, but had never worked with children before the Bridges program. She said she wanted to see if she could make a difference in someone's life at an earlier age.

Traylor works in human resources for a government contractor at Fort Meade, so she gave a workshop on how to prepare for job interviews. She dropped by Meade High on Thursday to look in on Denae Brunson, 14, and to introduce herself to Denae's mother, Rhonda Brunson. Brunson told Traylor that Denae's tutor has noticed a difference in her work since she started Bridges.

"He says she's doing a whole lot better," Brunson said. "The more tutors, the more support, the more help that she gets, [her performance] has got to go up."

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