Mentoring program thrives at MHSTeachers pair freshmen, seniors to benefit both.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
January is National Mentoring Month, a time to focus on the benefits of mentoring and the need for mentors.
There’s no need to make the pitch to a group of students at Mitchell High School. They’re already sold on mentoring, thanks to a successful program founded by MHS social studies teachers John Solberg and Kent Van Overschelde.
Solberg’s freshmen civics students regularly participate with seniors in Van Overschelde’s American government class in enrichment activities that benefit both groups.
“About four years ago, I had a civics class that was struggling,” Solberg recalled. “Kent said, ‘Why don’t we get together? My kids can help your kids.’ ”
And that’s the way it began, as freshmen were paired with seniors, or vice versa.
Both teachers believe the mentoring program has helped students personally and academically.
Van Overschelde said the program has been especially good for freshmen who are new to the high school and often feel at loose ends.
“Of course there’s a pecking order in high school,” Van Overschelde said. “But we’ve seen that being in the mentoring program gives freshmen a new perspective. It also gives them someone to make a connection with and gives them confidence in their new roles as MHS students.”
Seniors, instead of pulling rank and looking down their noses at rookie underclassmen, have readily accepted their new mentoring roles, the teachers said. Freshmen who began as mentees during that first year of mentoring are now mentors themselves.
Senior Petar Mirkovic, 18, selected freshman Tevyn Waddell, 14, as his mentee at the semester break. They weren’t strangers, since both compete with the Mitchell Aquatic Club swim team, said Mirkovic, who plans to study nursing next year at the University of South Dakota.
Waddell said she enjoys the class’ variety and “getting to work with students other than just kids in your own grade. I like it; it’s fun.”
Mirkovic said he enjoys working with younger students. “We have fun,” he agreed.
Jesse Volek, 17, who is paired with freshman Jacob Wahle, recalled her own time as a mentee.
“It was pretty scary,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect, talking to seniors. They were really intimidating.”
The mentorship class helped her to dismiss that anxiety, said Volek, who plans to study nursing at Mount Marty College next year. She’s enjoying her turn working with the “younger generation.”
“They’re kind of smarter than me,” she said with a laugh, “at least my mentee is.”
There are no hard and fast rules for the pairings. In some cases, students choose each other. In others, teachers select the partners.
Both groups get together every few weeks to share programs that differ from, yet contribute to, everyday curriculum work, explained Solberg. The idea is to stimulate discussion and exchange ideas.
Programs have included featured guest speakers like local attorney Doug Dailey and former State’s Attorney Pat Smith. Smith has since become a circuit court judge. Both attorneys explained the workings of the legal system and answered student questions.
Another program featured Troy Magnuson, Corn Palace Gift Shop assistant manager, who spoke about the history of the Corn Palace and his role as a member of the local Masonic Lodge, and the Shriners and other local service organizations.
Magnuson said he stresses the importance of giving back when he speaks to classes.
“I talk about the clubs I belong to,” said Magnuson, “and if I leave them with one thing, it’s that, wherever they end up — Los Angeles, Dallas, Pukwana or Sioux Falls — they should join an organization in that town, and be active and give back to the community. It will make you and the community better.”
A major goal of the program is to help students understand how civic institutions work for the public on a daily basis.
In a recent meeting held in the high school auditorium, the joint classes paired up and used laptops to explore and critique the iCivics.org website, which was founded in 2009 by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The site features interactive video games on multiple civics topics including the Constitution, citizenship requirements and participation, and various government functions.
“As citizens we’re responsible for understanding how our government operates,” Van Overschelde said.
Student teams will work together to create PowerPoint presentations on various aspects of the Constitution, which they will then present in class.
Classes also have current events contests every few weeks, and participate in a mock court trial at the end of the year.
The groups work well together, despite the age gap, Solberg said, and freshmen occasionally have insights surpassing those of their upper class mentors.
Van Overschelde believes his seniors can empathize with the changes freshmen face.
“I think all of our seniors have probably had someone who treated them badly when they were freshmen at one time or another,” Van Overschelde said. “I think the mentoring is working because I think our seniors would rather leave a positive legacy of treating people well.”
Last fall, there were nearly 90 students participating. Nearly all said they enjoyed it and would recommend continuing it.
The program’s staying power has been its own best testimonial, Solberg said. Besides the obvious social benefits of the program, pre- and post-tests of students have convinced the teachers that real learning is happening.
“The tests help us to see what areas we need to stress in our classes,” Solberg said. “And we also have the kids evaluate everything we’ve done.”
Sometimes, however, the benefits are not measurable by a test, according to senior Jesse Volek.
“The best part,” Volek said, “is that I get to meet a new friend.”