Mentoring matters


Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 10:58 p.m.
One governor has made a difference in the lives of 200,000 children.
Right now across Florida and other states, there are struggling students who need another caring adult in their lives. Florida is doing something dramatic about this serious problem.
For the past six years, Florida's governor has led an unprecedented effort to recruit mentors for at-risk children. Retired General Colin Powell, who as founding chairman of America's Promise helped kick off this mentoring program with Governor Jeb Bush in 1999, returned to Florida recently to recognize its tremendous and unique success.
Mentors really matter in a way that no government program can. Credible studies show that a young person who meets regularly with a mentor is 46 percent less likely to begin using drugs, 52 percent less likely to skip school, and 33 percent less likely to engage in disruptive behavior.
Since becoming governor, Jeb Bush has created a model program for mentoring that the heads of other large organizations can follow. Since 1999, Governor Bush has mentored a young middle school student every single week at the same public middle school. This duty is never left off his weekly schedule or delegated to someone else.
I doubt any other governor or public official has ever spent that much time in a public school during their tenure in office. From this weekly experience, the governor has learned a great deal about public education, including the
dedication of our teachers and the many challenges they face. Many of his creative ideas and programs came from his local experiences at the school and with his mentees.
Today, in part because of Governor Bush's example, more than 200,000 Floridians are mentors - 10 percent of all mentors in this country.
But it wasn't just a matter of setting a good example. Governor Bush created policies that encouraged others to become mentors. He is the first governor to allow any state employee a paid hour off each week to mentor and tutor in Florida's public schools. He encourages each gubernatorial appointee to mentor. His official state stationery has the mentoring logo and contact information on it. Nearly all of his agency heads now mentor, and they have recruited thousands of other mentors from their state agencies.
Tallahassee, the home of most of the state's employees, has seen a dramatic increase in volunteers in our schools. These new mentors have helped, with the support of teachers, to change student attitudes and improve student performance.
Mentors alone can't change a student or school, but they can make a small difference in the lives of individual children and can encourage them to become college students rather than dropouts.
And the change works both ways. The young students have had profound impacts on their mentors, whose lives often are very different from those of their mentees in the same community.
I have learned from my mentoring experiences that some young teenagers have already witnessed the violent death of a friend or neighbor. Many of the mentees don't know their fathers and very seldom see their mothers. Equally unbelievable is the fact that some children can live near a beach without ever seeing the sand or water, or they can reside less than half an hour from a movie theater or museum without ever being inside one, or they can live in a home where the only book is the telephone directory.
If Governor Bush can take an hour a week to mentor a child, surely leaders in every community can do the same. And if a governor devoted to efficient government can give state employees leave time for mentoring, so can other business and university leaders. University of Florida has agreed to a part of this effort.
For every child who has a mentor, at least ten do not. Take time this new year to become a mentor and give a young student a better chance to succeed in our great country.
Steve Uhlfelder is a Tallahassee attorney, the chairman of the Florida Mentoring Partnership, and the national chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. He was former chair of Florida Board of Regents. He has mentored for seventeen years.

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