With manufacturing jobs leaving the community, the rural, blue-collar town of Mattoon, IL, noticed an increase in problems associated with a lack of quality jobs: poverty, crime, and nontraditional family units. The majority of students in Mattoon come from low-income, single-parent households. Concerned that teens might not have adequate support systems as they entered high school, administrators, counselors, and teachers at Mattoon High School confronted the issue of improving the culture of the school in 2013.

The B.I.O.N.I.C. Program

We moved to put together a Freshman Mentoring Program to prevent more students from falling through the cracks. I was influenced by Sandy Austin, who developed the B.I.O.N.I.C. (Believe It Or Not, I Care) program at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, CO. Like Austin, I wanted to create a culture of care at my school. The goals of the program are: 

  • To make new students feel welcome.
  • To reach out to hospitalized students.
  • To reach out to students with extended illnesses/health conditions.
  • To reach out to students and their families who experience the death of a loved one.
  • To reach out to other schools that experience tragedies.
  • To empower bystanders to prevent bullying. 

Recruiting Mentors 

To find the best students to serve as mentors, teachers completed a survey that emphasized the character traits that the administration sought: communication skills, trustworthiness, loyalty, friendliness, kindness, and leadership. Every teacher in the school contributed by selecting the students who they felt met these qualifications. To be selected as a freshman mentor candidate, each student had to receive 12 or more nominations.

Situational Training

Mentoring for the upcoming school year begins in June. For three full days from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., we focus on the five pillars of effective mentoring: character, effective communication, dedication, courage, and empathy.

The mentor candidates participate in icebreaker activities, which give students an opportunity to break down the walls that come with new challenges. These same activities later help mentor students to develop relationships with their mentees. When executed during the mentoring process, mentors were already familiar with them and could direct the activities more clearly.

The mentors are also trained to role-play different situations that might occur throughout the semester: freshmen refusing to eat their lunch or participate in any of the activities, or showing blatant disrespect for the program or their mentor. In this case, mentors act as mentees, with several different mentor candidates attempting to counsel them in front of the group. After each training segment, students are asked to evaluate the conversation that took place and provide suggestions for improvement.

Finally, the last phase of the conference is meant to inspire the new team members using motivational speakers. Prominent leaders in the community were selected to speak with students about the importance of leadership and how to lead in productive ways. These individuals brought their own unique experiences and stories to help our students make wise decisions in the upcoming months.

Matching Mentors and Mentees

Counselor Deanna Dalby and I had no easy task in matching mentors with mentees, but we did implement a few specific strategies. To begin, our high school staff contacted Mattoon Middle School to compile a list of at-risk eighth-graders. We placed only one at-risk student in each mentor group with the intention of not overloading any one mentor with students with behavioral issues. Students who had a particularly problematic history were matched with more experienced mentors.

First Few Weeks

During the first two weeks of each semester, mentors meet with their mentees every day for their entire 40-minute lunch period. During the classroom meeting time, the focus is on mentors establishing a relationship with their mentees. We utilize the icebreaker activities that our mentors used during their training for this orientation period.

The staff also takes advantage of this time to orient the students to the school in general. Mentees play games to identify school personnel whom everyone needs to know; they practice using the family access system to check their grades online; they discuss extracurricular activities to help get new students involved; and they discuss the importance of study habits. We’ve found that all of these concepts are crucial to improving our school atmosphere.

Monitoring and Evaluating the Process

In order to evaluate the receptiveness of the program, we distribute surveys to the freshmen three times per semester. At the beginning, middle, and end of the semester, students are asked about their experiences with the mentoring program. We ask questions like: Do you feel encouraged by your mentor? Has your mentor helped you feel like a part of MHS? Has your mentor displayed a supportive leadership style? The surveys are used to prompt conversations with ninth-graders who are clearly unsatisfied with the experience in an effort to remedy the situation.

Results by the Numbers

The trend data for the 2013-14 school year-the initial year-showed some key improvements in the areas we consider vital to school climate. The data then stayed at a high level, indicating that B.I.O.N.I.C. likely made a difference. For example, viewing the attendance improvements from the freshman class shows an increase in attendance from the pre- to the post-mentoring years. Furthermore, the high school as a whole saw the average attendance rate increase from a pre-mentoring term of three years at 91.2 percent to a mean of 93.6 percent during the three post-mentoring years.

Additionally, the truancy data shows a decrease from 4.18 truancies per student in the three years before mentoring to 3.79 truancies per student in the three years after employing the program. Discipline referrals have also dropped significantly since the commencement of the Freshman Mentoring Team.

Schoolwide statistics show improvements as well. Prior to mentoring, Mattoon High School had an average of 231 incidents of out-of-school suspensions per year. Throughout the next three years, this average dropped to 100. Similarly, during the three years prior to mentoring, Mattoon saw an average of 107 individual students receiving those out-of-school suspensions-and that rate was decreased by half, with 49 of the school’s students receiving out-of-school suspensions after the Freshman Mentoring Team took effect. 

Qualitative Data

It is important to note that B.I.O.N.I.C. is not the only initiative that our school has implemented to improve school culture. For example, in 2010-11, we employed a new schoolwide discipline system. In 2012-13, we began using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to reward students with positive incentives. In 2013-14, we employed a citywide ordinance that allowed us to fine parents for their children’s excess truancies. It is equally important to note that despite these other factors, the data clearly suggests that our biggest impact occurred in the school year of 2013-14, and the most profound impact seems to have been on the freshman class. The reason for this, we believe, is because of the relationships built by our Freshman Mentoring Team.

We believe that some students feel as if they do not have a single person in the school, or sometimes in their lives, who cares about them. Because of this, we feel this aspect of the Freshman Mentoring Team is especially crucial to school climate. In fact, even if students already feel supported, it provides them with one more person to go to when they are experiencing difficulties.  

Michele Sinclair, EdD, is a retired teacher and principal of Mattoon High School in Illinois. Eric Sinclair, PhD, who assisted in the writing of this article, is a National Board Certified Teacher and a B.I.O.N.I.C. freshman mentoring supervisor.