Dr. Gale Levon Bell knew the name on a list of chronically absent students belonged to a junior at Glenn Hills High School who had been absent more days than she ever sat in a classroom, but the clues ended there.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Who is Shavona Dent?’ ” said Bell, a dropout prevention specialist.
At the time, Bell had no idea Dent was an 18-year-old mother with no financial support and little help from home.
At 11 a.m. one morning, Bell drove to an address listed in the school registry for Dent and knocked on the door. On the second knock, when Dent’s uncle answered the door, Bell announced she was there to make sure the teen doesn’t become another dropout statistic.
“It was the first time I felt like someone really cared about me,” Dent said later. “I guess I had nobody to motivate me. People in my life (were) always making promises but never kept up. But she followed through.”
Glenn Hills is in its second year of an intensive, schoolwide mentoring program to help at-risk students finish high school and form relationships that might be missing at home. The program has shown that pairing students with mentors can boost student achievement.
The Spartan Champion’s Mentoring Program began last school year with 97 mentors and 196 mentees. Before working with their mentors, 125 students were failing two or more classes and 105 were missing at least five days of school a month. By the end of the nine weeks, 28 of the 125 were no longer failing and 87 of the 105 started coming to school regularly.
Discipline problems among the students also decreased from 60 suspensions at the start of the program to 28 at the end of the year.
“If young people have problems at home or in their personal life, if they are dealing with things, they need help to be able to do well in school,” Bell said. “It’s not that they can’t learn, it’s just that they’ve got all this stuff happening that’s beyond them.”
After having her daughter, J’Ziyah, Dent felt like she couldn’t go back to school because she couldn’t afford child care. Without a stable home life, Dent was also constantly moving between the houses of relatives, often not staying in one place for more than a month at a time.
“I couldn’t go to school with all this stuff on my mind,” Dent said. And she didn’t. She missed 40 days of the 2010-2011 year, her junior year, until Bell stepped in.
Bell began visiting Dent at home, delivering missed class assignments and encouraging her to focus on graduation. Bell educated Dent about resources, such as federal aid for child care, so she could go back to school.
By the end of the first half of this school year, Dent’s attendance improved, having missed only two weeks because of her daughter’s respiratory illness.
Without her mentor, Dent said she would have “for sure dropped out of school,” but now for the first time, she has someone to constantly push her toward graduation.
To enter the program, students have to meet at least one of five indicators: failing grades in two or more classes, low attendance, behavioral problems, off-track for graduation or teen pregnancy.
Teens are matched up with mentors, who help them until graduation.
Using money from the three-year School Improvement Grant enabled Glenn Hills Principal Wayne Frazier to hire Bell and launch the program.
Frazier also revised employment contracts so every staff member, from custodians to teachers, must serve, if asked, as a mentor. If they are unable to dedicate the time, they cannot be employed at Glenn Hills.
Frazier sees the mentoring program as the missing ingredient for student achievement. What adequate yearly progress and standardized tests don’t consider, he said, is a sutdent’s life and barriers to learning they face.
“When our children are suffering from the lack of caring adults in their lives, when you fix that situation and bring in a caring adult, then the academics will come up,” Fraizer said.
Glenn Hills is not the only high school in the district with a mentoring program, but it is the only one that requires all staff members to participate. It is also by far the most intensive, according to Lynn Warr, the executive director of high schools.
Mentors must spend at least eight hours a month with their mentees and submit monthly progress reports to the program managers. Some get creative, including Sgt. Jay Jenkins, the ROTC naval science instructor who took two students to a car show in Atlanta one weekend.
One mentee struggled with grades and had run-ins with groups of teens in his neighborhood. Another had issues at home and needed a role model she could trust.
Jenkins is there to check on them at home and take them to Pizza Hut for dinner. The retired Navy sergeant uses his free time to invite them to the mall or for a walk in the neighborhood to talk about problems, gladly accepting the title of father figure.
“Others call them mentees, but I call them my kids,” Jenkins said.
This semester, the mentee struggling with grades made the A-B honor roll for the first time.
Dent has also looked at her future in a different light. Although she still struggles to make it to school, she is guaranteed a phone call or text from Bell to check where she is.
The motivation has made her think past high school to college or the military, a future she never dreamed of a year ago when she was a potential high school dropout.
“Life is hard,” Dent said. “I have a lot of stress, and it gets really hard. But it’s nice to know someone cares.”