The pandemic has made mentorship for students more important than ever as they adapt to virtual learning and deal with new feelings of isolation.
The Friends in Schools Helping [FISH] program through Jefferson Area Board for Aging has operated in the central Virginia area since 2004, serving public school students in preschool through high school.
The program matches mentors with skills and interests that complement the student’s needs and interests. Parents can reach out to the program directly, requesting a mentor for their child, or teachers can refer students they think can benefit from the program.
The coronavirus has changed everything, not only students’ needs but also how the program operates as it moves to a virtual format, said Winter Broadhurst, JABA volunteer services coordinator.
“We know that kids are very adaptable, but they also need consistency and routine, and this year, so much has changed for them – everything from how they do school to how they socialize,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, mentors and students cannot meet in person, but FISH is continuing its mission online. Broadhurst acknowledges that moving to a virtual format may present access challenges for families without a strong enough internet connection to support video calls, citing phone mentoring as a potential solution.
Moving to a virtual format has changed how the mentors and students meet, but hasn’t changed the overall goal of the program.
Broadhurst says they consider the mentor’s schedule, subject and grade-level preferences, interests, and specialized skills such as languages.
“If I know that a student enjoys painting, and I have a mentor that enjoys painting, I’ll take that into consideration,” Broadhurst said. “It’s a great way to start building a mentor-mentee relationship over a shared connection like that.”
Although there is not a singular goal of mentorship, Broadhurst says that the program aims to support students who need a consistent adult presence in their life and help students with “emotional growth and well-being, confidence building, social skills and academic support.”
Every mentor-mentee relationship is different, depending on student needs. This year, Broadhurst says the program is seeing more older students in middle school and high school than in the past, and she thinks this is because of the new challenges presented by the pandemic, especially dealing with isolation and figuring out how to become more independent learners.
“We’re getting more parents who are saying things like their kids are lonely, and they’re missing the social connection,” Broadhurst said. “That’s been new for us because normally, the kids are in the classrooms with all their friends. Isolation has been a new struggle that we haven’t seen in this way before.”
Mentors this year may need to help their students cope with these feelings of loneliness.
Another unique challenge facing students this year is having greater independence and ownership over their education. Now, they are responsible for figuring things out on their own without being in a classroom with a teacher who can hold them accountable. Students have to keep up with and submit their own work and manage their time.
“These independent, healthy habits aren’t sometimes developed until college,” Broadhurst said.
“We’re excited to help with [this new challenge] because our academic mentoring side of things really does emphasize independent learning.”
Mentors can help students adapt to the independence and self-accountability that virtual learning requires by helping them build healthy study habits, such as taking clear notes, writing down questions they need to ask their teacher and strengthening time management skills.
To measure the success of the program, FISH seeks feedback from teachers. In a survey last April, Broadhurst said all of the teachers surveyed said they saw improvement in social and academic skills, engagement in the classroom, and confidence among students who were paired with a FISH mentor.
Now, the program has about 50 mentors who have been approved and a few dozen more who are on a waiting list to be screened. Some 30 students have been matched with a mentor or are in the process of being placed.
Of the counties that participate in the FISH program, Louisa students are currently underrepresented. Broadhurst is hoping for more referrals from the schools.
“We know that there are definitely families and students who need the help,” she said. “We just want to make sure that we’re able to connect that bridge as much as we can this year to support the community.”