Youth of Promise Mentoring: Powerful Support for Struggling Tweens & Teens

What do you do with failing, out-of-control 11-14 year olds headed for the juvenile justice system? You pair them up with police officers and fire fighters – for mentoring.

Youth of Promise Mentoring: Powerful Support for Struggling Tweens and TeensCarmen and Sharise are typical 8th grade students. Currently attending their final year at Washington Middle School in Northwest Pasadena, CA, they are not outstanding scholars. Only one of the two girls has a high enough GPA to graduate from middle school, and the other is far below requirements. Under California law, however, both will be sent on to nearby John Muir High School in the fall regardless of their final GPAs and skill levels.

Their classroom behavior over the past three years has mirrored their scholastic difficulties: each girl is frequently obstinate and occasionally disruptive and combative. At times, their behavior is directed at their teachers, at other times it’s directed at one another.

Their male and female peers at Washington are struggling right along with them. After the 2011 academic year, the school’s API score was only 667, out of a goal of 800 and a total of 1,000 possible points. It was the lowest score in the Pasadena Unified School District.

Students’ grade point averages reflected that level, with a 2.0 (C average) being considered a relatively successful achievement. Books in the classroom have a tendency to be thrown around as often as they are read, leading to a student-suspension rate almost twice that of the district’s average, at 43% last year.

Poverty is the defining characteristic of the students enrolled in Washington: 90% of students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, and overcrowded homes are endemic. In terms of ethnicity, the surrounding community is approximately 24% African-American and 62% Latino.  Thirty years ago, those numbers were reversed.

Along with the prevalence of poverty, violent gangs have managed to entrench themselves in this area. New policing tactics over the past four years have begun to make a dent in at least one gang’s activities, but the violence, burglary, prostitution and drug trade continue.

A little-noticed trend among the gangs in Northwest Pasadena, however, has been gradually taking place over the years. It mirrors the same trend around the country: new gang members are no longer high-school age, or even in their teens. They’re only 11-12 years old.

The impact has been felt most acutely at Washington Middle School (ages 11-14), where behavior for some students has degenerated into constant fights and arguments.  Of the 585 students enrolled at the school, close to 100 are now exhibiting violent behavior severe enough to be categorized as Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), which is a childhood mental disability characterized by a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior towards authority figures.

Even students not participating in such behavior are strongly affected by the students that are, resulting in the cohort of incoming 9th graders last year heading to high school with GPAs below 2.0 (and many below 1.0), multiple F’s and excessive truancies and absences.

In spring 2010, a highly-experienced Flintridge Center employee was put in place of a fledgling mentoring program for the middle school students at Washington. Before joining Flintridge, Mr. Ricky Pickens had been the only truancy officer for the entire Pasadena Unified School District for several years, and before that he had served as a Gang Outreach Specialist for the Pasadena Police Department. Due to his previous experience, Ricky knew that a standard mentoring program at Washington wasn’t going to work. He needed to innovate.

At the suggestion of one of his former colleagues at the police department, Ricky began recruiting field officers and commanders interested in becoming mentors for the toughest, most troubled kids on campus. He had a quick response from a surprising number of police personnel and began to train them for their volunteer responsibilities with teens in crisis.

Youth of Promise Mentoring: Powerful Support for Struggling Tweens and TeensRicky also approached the Pasadena Fire Department and began recruiting among the fire fighters posted to local fire stations. Again, the response was encouraging. The advantage to a fire station is that students can participate in small groups at each location, as long as transportation is properly arranged. Maintaining the fire-fighting equipment, cooking, cleaning up and participating in physical fitness routines with their mentors were thought be a compelling attraction to almost any kid. As it turns out, they are, but the logistics can be tough to sustain.

Pitching the idea to the leadership at Washington Middle School was also easy; the principal, assistant principal and academic counselor jumped on board. That left the more challenging student body. Breaking through pre- and early-adolescent barriers is tough and not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, Ricky is a large and athletic man with a warm heart but a no-nonsense style. He was a highly successful college football player with some time at the pro level.  Nothing deters him, including teenage angst and posturing.

Ricky began meeting with the kids one-on-one and in small groups in the Administration office to introduce them to the program. Hand-picked by the school’s counselor, Dr. Black, the first set of 19 kids were those most likely to be suspended, transferred out or arrested in the near future.

They weren’t really given a choice regarding mentoring. They were enrolled into the program by Ricky, after conversations with their parents or caregivers. Despite their hesitant acceptance at first, they gradually warmed up to their mentors and began to participate with incredible enthusiasm. There’s something about having lunch with a uniformed police officer or fire fighter on campus in front of all their friends and peers that instilled a sense of worth in these troubled students. For most, it was the first positive interaction with an adult that they could recall.

We just want you to know, we know what you’re doing. It’s cutting into our action.” – An older gang member.

The first indication of the success of the mentoring program was swift. An older member of one of the local gangs wandered onto campus and walked right into the Principal’s office. He sat down and let her know that the mentoring program was hampering their recruitment process. “Eyes are watching you.”

It seemed to be more than a matter of saving face, although the Police Gang Unit members, who were immediately consulted, urged calm. If your program was too threatening, you’d know right away. In the weeks that followed, an informal agreement seemed to develop: “If you get the kids first, that’s fine. If they come to us, they’re ours.”

My kid hadn’t looked me in the eye in years. Now, we have dinner together and talk. I don’t know how you did that, but thank you.

—A father of one of the first mentees.

The second indication of success was the type of stories and comments coming back from the mentors and the families of the mentees. Remember, these were all out-of-control kids. Jamal (not his real name) is a good example. Enrolled into the program as a tough delinquent at age thirteen (last semester of 8th grade), he had been identified by the patrol officer that came up with the mentoring idea in the first place. Jamal’s older brother was a violent gang member, his mother was an active alcoholic, and his father was dying slowly of cancer.  “We’re going to save that kid,” said Officer Randall.  And he did.

Jamal entered the program with a 1.8 GPA in his academic subjects at the end of fall 2010, along with daily behavioral referrals and a bad attitude. One year later, after picnics, hikes, playing organized sports, attending professional sporting events, homework help and long talks – representing at least 100 hours of mentoring — he finished his first semester of high school with a 3.6 GPA in his academic subjects (3.25 overall) and had made the school’s football team.

The majority of the other mentees also raised their GPAs by an average of 39%, although in-class disruptions and absenteeism increased. Done well, mentoring works. With considerable outside interference, it’s not enough.

Youth of Promise Mentoring: Powerful Support for Struggling Tweens and TeensMore is needed. Every young teen in the program is suffering from some degree of trauma experienced earlier in their lives, while several are still experiencing repeated trauma at home or out in the community. That emotional upheaval has put most of them far behind in academic skills and emotional maturity.

After careful research, three programs have been identified to support the mentoring effort by addressing this extended range of needs: Aggression Replacement Training© (ART), the Parent Project©-Pasadena (P-3), and Revolution K-12© (RK-12).

ART was designed specifically to help teens learn to control their ODD-style behavior and is provided by certified therapists-in-training once each week for 30 weeks.

P-3 is designed to help parents and caregivers learn to be more consistent in providing effective and positive boundaries, penalties and incentives to help develop more mature behavior in themselves and their teens.  The once-per-week sessions will be provided by Ricky Pickens and at least one other certified instructor for 12 weeks (with English and Spanish cohorts).

RK-12 is a PC-based tutoring program that is fully individualized and supported by a credentialed teacher and college-student tutors. Mentees will participate in tutoring sessions (math & English) four times each week for about 2.5 hours each time. These new components are ready to be implemented…but each one depends on Flintridge Center obtaining additional funding in order to launch the services.

Looking to the Future

Recruiting additional mentors for the next group of students has not been difficult, although Ricky and the current mentors still have to work at it. Public safety employees have complicated schedules, and effective mentoring requires a significant time commitment.

When did I know I was making bad choices? When I was 12 years old. What I needed was an adult to rein me in and show me how to do things right. I’m stubborn –  I’d have given him holy hell for trying, but that’s what I needed, and that’s what I didn’t get.

—A former felon who had just finished serving a 7-year sentence for aggravated assault.

In addition, severely traumatized teens need time to heal and learn new ways to think, evaluate and behave. That can involve considerable patience, compassion, stability and understanding on the part of each mentor. Despite all that, new volunteers are coming forward, recruited in part by the deep satisfaction described by their colleagues at the Police and Fire departments.

As a result of the Youth of Promise Mentoring Program and its dedicated volunteer mentors, the next few years look much brighter for these kids than it did just one year ago. They have a sense of direction, a network of emotional support, and a positive relationship with an adult they admire.  Every mentee is working diligently to develop the tools they need to turn their lives around.

Despite the inevitable challenges they’ll all face in the years ahead, we’re heartened by their early and impressive success, and we’re dedicated to continuing our support of their efforts. We’ll keep you posted on their progress. If you’d like to join us, please give us a call.

Flintridge Center is a multi-service nonprofit organization based in Northwest Pasadena, CA. Other services include Capacity-Building Training for nonprofit organizations in the San Gabriel Valley, and Apprenticeship Preparation Program for disadvantaged adults, operated in partnership with Pasadena City College. For more information about Youth of Promise Mentoring Program or any of our other activities, please contact:

Mark Eiduson
Director of Strategic Partnerships
Flintridge Center
236 W. Mountain Street, #106
Pasadena, CA 91103

Phone: (626) 449-0839 x128
Cell: (818) 970-1242 CELL