By Evelyn Archibald and Zachary Navarra
Being a junior mentor, Hillary Odom has the unique opportunity to develop a closer connection with her students. Ms. Odom has used this connection to help her mentees in ways she never received from her high school teachers. She is currently helping one of her students look for cars; they are navigating together the different options available to young teens. This is something her school never helped her with, and she is glad to give the extra support to her mentee.
According to Adelaide Giornelli, a current freshman mentor and Dean of Students at Summit Shasta, “A mentor group is a randomly selected cross-section of the grade that meets together every day; the purpose is to give them one adult who they know they can go to.” Mentor groups meet every day and stay together for all four years of high school. They spend time in and outside of school bonding through group activities, academics, and various other events. A mentor is a randomly selected teacher who acts as the group leader through all four years of high school.
Ms. Odom said the mentor system “builds a sense of a belonging and pride.” She explains that this is shown through “being able to share personal experiences as a group or more one-on-one.”
The mentor groups at Shasta all are meant to essentially build and foster community within the groups, to make a safe space for the students in their school. Individual mentors and their mentees have personal goals for their groups in the years to come as well.
Shasta freshman Lyanna Cruzat spoke on the personal safety of mentor groups, saying, “Having a place where you feel safe, comfortable, just having a place where you don’t feel judged is something really important. Especially if that place is school.” Mentor groups allow students to have a safe space in school that they can go to.
“It feels very informal. You can basically talk to them about anything. It’s a place where you can be more relaxed, yeah. I think Shasta does a good job bringing in that sense of community with your group,” Shasta sophomore Albert Chang-Yoo said. The students in mentor groups are given the opportunity to get to know each other and become more comfortable with the school and students in it.
However, not all students feel this way. When asked how his experience has been through the past three years Shasta junior Ben Judice said, “It’s a place you go; there is no real unity beyond that it’s a place you are in with other people.” While the mentor system strives for greater community, it isn’t perfect and does not satisfy the needs of all students.
Rachel Baumgold, a new teacher to Shasta and freshman co-mentor, commented on the different dynamics of teacher and mentor, saying the two roles are “conflicting.” “On the one hand you’re a teacher who kind of has to demand respect, but on the other hand for a mentoring relationship to be productive you need to see each other as individual human beings,” she added.
Ms. Baumgold said, “My goal would be to build relationships with students where both me and the student see each other as the individuals we are, beyond the roles that we carry in school.”
In comparison, more established teachers like freshman mentor Ms. Giornelli hope to “force students to connect with each other.” This is seen through mixing up friends groups and intentionally seating kids with students they don’t normally talk to. Another way of doing this has been through a group activity known as Circle. Ms. Giornelli believes this has been very helpful to the bonding and emotional connectedness of her mentees.
Summit Public Schools has used Circle as a very intentional structure that allows students to share their emotions and values in a way that fosters community. It attempts to teach students how to build authentic connections and resonate with people. This weekly event helps foster community within each mentor group.
However, it is “difficult to put into practice,” Ms. Baumgold said. “I think, in actual practice with teenagers, it takes a lot of work for the Circles to become productive in the way they’re supposed to be productive.”
Chang-Yoo said, “The Circles, well it kinda helps, but sometimes it feels like you’re being forced to bond.” The goal of Circle, at its core, is to bring students together. A mentor’s goal is to try to get their mentees to break out of their comfort zone and build relationships with students they might not normally talk to.
Circle isn’t the only way students come together and form community. Students form community through school field trips, holding potlucks, creating mentor T-shirts and out-of-school activities.
Mentors such as Ms. Giornelli, Ms. Odom and Ms. Baumgold all work toward strengthening their bond with students along with the students’ bond with each other. Summit Shasta works toward building a strong community through group activities and mentor guidance in the mentor group system.
Featured image (at the top of this post): Hillary Odom’s junior mentor group attends the annual school camping trip. PHOTO CREDIT: Hillary Odom