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Can the education of L.A. students be saved? About 27,000 mentors are needed to try

A young girl reads a speech from a draft held for her by an adult.
L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho holds a speech written by fourth-grader Tinniya Wilson as she reads it during an event Friday at Compton Avenue Elementary School STEAM Academy in Watts to launch a districtwide mentoring effort. Officials hope it will reach 27,000 students.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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He was a fourth-grade student from a poor, working-class family, whose siblings did not finish high school. She was a high-achieving 11th grader so turned off by school that she was about to ditch her senior year.

Both of the former students — Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Alberto Caravalho and School Board President Jackie Goldberg — earned their diplomas thanks in large part to adults who mentored them. So it made sense that the top city school leaders envision a similar path for thousands of public school students identified as needing a similar helping hand.

Carvalho, Goldberg and L.A. Chamber of Commerce leader Maria Salinas unveiled the massive call to mentoring — for some 27,000 students districtwide — at a Watts elementary school on Friday. Participating organizations will include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, the Brotherhood Crusade, girls inc. and Toberman Neighborhood Center.

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Carvalho recalled Miss Natalia, who taught him from first to fourth grade in his native Portugal.

“What she did beyond the classroom with me changed my life,” Carvalho said. “She cared, made a difference. I got to graduate high school. My brothers and sister didn’t. Something clicked because someone cared enough.”

Goldberg remembered how she just wanted to take the General Educational Development test to earn a certificate, surrendering an opportunity to earn a diploma.

But her counselor, David Reiss at Morningside High in Inglewood, wouldn’t let that happen — and instead found a college program that allowed her to earn a high school diploma, and from there she went to UC Berkeley and a long career in education and politics.

“Every one of these 27,000 kids in our community,” said Carvalho, “needs to feel that they are important enough because of the presence of that valuable and inspirational adult.”

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Carvalho did not have a precise dollar estimate for the project, which is called Everyone Mentors L.A., but suggested the cost would be minimal compared to the impact — and would rely heavily on community groups and volunteer mentors. L.A. Unified would serve as the hub: identifying students and paying for background checks on prospective mentors.

“In a community of over 5 million residents, finding 27,000 mentors should be easy,” Carvalho said. “But we cannot do it alone.”

A mentor for fourth-grader Tinniya Wilson at Compton Avenue Elementary STEAM Academy has been Principal Lashon Sanford. Tinniya, who also receives tutoring help, delivered a brief speech to the gathered dignitaries and journalists about the benefits of tutoring and collected a hug from Sanford in the process.

Her tutoring, she said, helps her “overcome challenges, ask questions and grow confidence.”

Officials said research supports the effectiveness of mentoring, which can involve a surprisingly modest commitment.

“Research recommends one hour per week,” Carvalho said, adding that the district would ask that the meetings take place at campuses, at least for the time being. “It’s hard to predict when we will hit the 27,000. But we hope that throughout this year, we will develop the relationships we need to — between this year and going into the summer — and reach that desired goal.”

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L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, had a notable misfire with a past attempt at comprehensive mentoring.

In August 2014, Supt. John Deasy officially opened the school year by urging, even assigning, all mid-level and higher staffers to a dropout-prevention effort. About 1,500 sealed envelopes, each containing a student’s name, were taped under the seats in the recently rebuilt Garfield High auditorium for the superintendent’s annual address.

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The names inside were those of freshmen who, the previous year had been at risk of dropping out, struggling with low attendance, poor discipline, failed classes or low test scores. Some were in foster care; some were learning English; some were students with disabilities.

But many envelopes went unclaimed. Even for the rest, there’s no documentation that anything grew out of that dramatic gesture.

Volunteer mentor Jerome Caldwell, a computer technology specialist for a commercial real estate company, said Friday he began mentoring a boy six years ago.

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“He was 9, energetic, and the matching process was pretty cool, because we both loved sports, the outdoors,” said Caldwell, who is affiliated with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles.”I’ve tried to expose him to a lot of what L.A. has to offer: football and baseball, going to sporting events and eating out. And I check in with him to make sure how he’s doing in school.”

Caldwell’s mentee has a strong family, but even so, it’s possible to head down a destructive path, Caldwell said, adding, “I grew up in Oakland, which is a lot like L.A. You can easily go the wrong direction in both cities.”

He hopes the relationship is “instilling in him that you don’t have to join gangs, you can be yourself, you can be smart.”

The school system has set up a web page where volunteers can sign up and also link directly to participating groups.

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