Honors students mentor at-risk children in elementary, middle and high schools

By:    Date: 10-09-2014

Multiple educational-outreach programs focus on forming mutually beneficial bonds between university students and children while improving kids’ literacy and college and career readiness.



Elementary mentoring programs help young children master foundational skills for future success. Mentors read and discuss books with the children and create related art projects.

Through a UA Honors College program, Claire Armstrong said she has been given the opportunity to influence young children’s lives while growing personally herself. Armstrong, a senior majoring in political science and English, serves as executive director of public relations for READ Alabama, a literacy and mentoring initiative that pairs college
students with at-risk elementary students in the Tuscaloosa area.

“I have found the program to be incredibly rewarding,” Armstrong said. “I have watched my students grow as readers and become enthusiastic about learning. Knowing that my work has the ability to improve a child’s future is everything.”

Honors College’s educational-outreach initiative began in 2006 with one class of 20 UA students. Since then, it has grown and expanded into more than 10 service-learning courses with 350 UA students mentoring children in seven elementary, middle and high schools each semester.

“It has become a part of many UA Honors students’ college experience,” said Kathryn Merritt, director of external relations for Honors College. “We strive to offer a menu of educational-outreach mentoring options for students to serve different mentoring needs throughout our community. The students have a passion and true heart for service, and they apply this to help a child succeed both academically and socially.”

Untitled7Elementary mentoring programs help young children master foundational skills for future success. At the middle and high school levels, kids learn about test-taking strategies, cyber-safety and forming positive relationships with peers and adults.

Faculty members who teach the service-learning courses at UA are K-12 teachers or are part of the educational community.

In just four years, the READ Alabama program has engaged 250 student mentors.

Former UA student Colby Leopard developed a strong foundation for the program so it could continue to thrive after its creators graduated.

During the school day, each mentor is paired with two children for 30 minutes, then two different children for a second 30-minute session. Each session consists of mentors reading a pre-selected book aloud and then discussing the book with the children, tying in at least one college and career readiness standard. UA students and the kids discuss the characters in the book, while also talking about everyday life.

During the after-school segment of READ Alabama, mentors spend an hour with the same two kids. They use the first 30 minutes to read and discuss a book, then create a related art project during the remaining time.


Middle and high school mentors teach kids about test-taking strategies, cybersafety and forming positive relationships with peers and adults.

Vicki Holt, instructor of UH 105 Honors Mentoring for K-12 Children and faculty advisor for READ Alabama, said the program provides a stepping stone for kids to improve their reading and social skills by interacting with a caring, college student mentor. “What makes READ Alabama unique is the fact that it is based on a community need and continues to develop to meet the needs of the children we serve,” Holt said. “Many of the children selected as mentees are in need of a positive role model and extra attention to succeed in the classroom. By building positive relationships with older students, many young children are given the chance to grow and find a passion for reading.”

Holt said in addition to gaining college and career-readiness and art skills, children in the program make strides in reading comprehension, oral-language development, vocabulary and higher-level thinking skills. She attributes the success of the program to its ability to recruit highly motivated UA students who have a vision of what they would like to see the program become and are willing to research and tweak what volunteers are doing to ensure effectiveness.

After students finish the UH 105 course they are able to continue volunteering for READ Alabama. Mentors attend weekly meetings, write weekly reports and offer suggestions for
the curriculum.

Untitled8Andrea Poole, a reading coach at Cottondale Elementary, said her students are making advancements through the READ Alabama partnership and look forward to meeting with their mentors each week.

“The children grow throughout the semester as relationships and trust are built,” Poole said. “As the semester progresses, our students begin to feel more comfortable opening up to their mentor. This interaction is very beneficial.”

Honors College students also mentor kids in middle and high school through
the Drive initiative. These programs focus on college preparation and career readiness, helping kids develop the “drive” needed for success.

Students mentor ninth graders as part of the College/Career Readiness Initiative. Other
programs include STEM (with activities related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics), AP mentoring, A+ College Ready and individual mentoring sessions.

Untitled10During the past three years, 120 UA students have mentored more than 310 high schoolers.

“For many of the middle and high school students we work with, life beyond the present is something they rarely take the time to consider,” said DJ Jackson, a senior majoring in history and an academic-outreach intern for Honors College. “Building relationships and guiding the students we work with through a process of self discovery is a life-changing opportunity.”

Two UH 105 courses that focus on mentoring high schoolers are Alabama Possible, which promotes college readiness and access at the ninth-grade level, and a course that focuses on ACT test preparation for 11th graders. Approximately 30 UA students mentor 60 high school freshmen each semester through Alabama Possible, and 15 UA students help prepare 30 high school juniors for the ACT test.

Alabama Possible curriculum is based on Blue Prints, a program created by a UA graduate. Many high school students involved in the ACT-prep program have taken the test before
and are looking to improve their scores.

Connie Coleman, a UH 105 Honors Mentoring instructor and counselor at Hillcrest High School, said value is added to the program when college students invest in high school students’ lives. High schoolers look up to the UA students and find credibility in what they share, she said. “The potential of UA students is limitless in terms of their ability to improve the community,” Coleman said. “Many students want to get involved in these programs and continue for the remainder of their college years.”

Jackson said Honors College mentoring programs give UA students a chance to see an educational environment that, in most cases, is very different from the one they experienced and allows them to expand their horizons by being engaged in the Tuscaloosa community.

Tuscaloosa’s One Place, a nonprofit that operates programs in many Tuscaloosa schools, has tracked the progress of children involved with Honors College mentoring programs. Kids’ reading levels and grades have improved, attendance has increased and discipline referrals have decreased.

Jourdan Williams, a freshman majoring in psychology and business, has helped high school freshmen through lessons centered around selecting a college or career path, financial aid, building a competitive resume and developing interview skills. “I feel that the mentors are often better able to reach the mentees being closer in age and experience than adult authority figures,” Williams said. “Furthermore, the expectation to lead by example encourages us to better self-regulate and set higher goals and standards for ourselves.”

Teresa Costanzo, director of Tuscaloosa’s One Place, said the mentoring programs offer kids enrichment opportunities in art and reading that would not be available otherwise. “Students love the close relationship they have with their mentors, who provide encouragement, support and positive interaction that leads to improved self esteem,” Costanzo said. “Many of our students have improved school attendance because they are paired with a mentor and do not want to miss that interaction.”

For more information about Honors College’s educational-outreach programs and service-learning opportunities, contact Kathryn Merritt at 205-348-7053 or klmerritt@ua.edu.