By HEATHER WRIGHT — How do you learn a difficult skill? Ideally, you learn from those who have mastered that same skill. A budding carpenter, for instance, might apprentice under a master carpenter, watching the carpenter in action, asking questions, and practicing under their supervision.
How does a teen learn to be a caring adult who functions well in a given field and contributes to society? Even with good and caring parents, teens face many pitfalls and challenges in and out of school. With parents stretched by financial difficulty and emotional stressors, or who have had poor role models themselves, teens may find the task of becoming a healthy and productive adult considerably more daunting.
Many cities and schools are looking to mentorship programs to surround students with strong role models who can guide them. Research demonstrates that mentoring programs have positive effects on youths’ behavioral, social, emotional and academic development.
Director of Community Services Jake Rollow said that Hyattsville’s nascent youth mentorship program is a work in progress and will depend on fundraising efforts and grants. He hopes the program can start “in a limited way, come July, and ramp up in the fall.” Rollow has a list of approximately 20 individuals who responded to the city’s request for program volunteers.
The city will be contracting with Northstar Tutoring, based in D.C., to run the mentoring program. “One of the main reasons for choosing Northstar was the success of their hybrid tutoring model,” said Rollow. According to their website, Northstar has spent almost 30 years providing weekly tutoring and regular mentoring activities to some of D.C.’s most underserved students. The site states, “The goal[s] of all Northstar activities are two-fold: to help students reach and exceed academic grade level requirements, and to help them along the path of personal success through the active and long-term support of a successful and caring adult.”  
According to Rollow’s research on Northstar, 85 percent of students in the program increased their math scores or reading scores by at least one letter grade during 2016-17, the most recent year for which data was available.
Another reason the city chose Northstar, Rollow said, is because the organization is willing to build in additional best practices requested by city staff, including training mentors and tutors and fostering connections with students’ families.They were also willing to try and partner with local groups, such as a businesses, that could host students and mentors during a monthly outing and provide them with an inside look at how a business is run.
Rollow said that the new mentorship program will likely offer each student at least one weekly tutoring session and a monthly outing with their mentor-tutor. Students who want more than one weekly tutoring session may be matched with an additional tutor.
According to Rollow, Mayor Candace Hollingsworth came up with the idea for a youth mentoring program. “She had a child in middle school. She was aware of the need,” he said. Planning for the program began as part of the 2018 budget process.
Hollingsworth said in an email, “When I was elected in 2015, I wanted to create more opportunities for young people between the ages of 12 and 19. Mentoring, athletic programs, and afterschool programs were always a part of what I envisioned to support that goal.” She went on to describe a 2016 listening session she hosted for eighth graders at Hyattsville Middle School. “The kids had a great time, they got to know city staff, and the perspectives they shared were important to me. Several students stood up to say that they would like help with finding mentors,” said Hollingsworth.
Rollow also noted that the city’s Educational Committee hosts an annual meeting of local principals to assess schools’ needs. “Year after year, mentorship has come up as a need,” he said. Wrap-around tutor support, especially in math and reading, has consistently been mentioned, as well.
After the city council requested the fiscal year 2019 expansion of the city’s Teen Club, Rollow said that he and other city staff knew they would have the “backbone program” to support a mentorship program. Rollow described how Hyattsville City Police Sgt. Suzie Johnson launched the Teen Club over the past year. The club meets at Magruder Park three times a week over the summer and once weekly during the school year.
According to Rollow, the city council is looking to expand the Teen Club financially by providing supplies and part-time staffing support. “Right now,” Rollow noted, “Suzie is doing it all on her own strength of will and spirit.”
The council also wants to renovate a space at University Town Center (UTC) so an expanded teen program could be open five days a week throughout the year. (The target date for renovations is January 2019.) Depending on grant funding, the expanded teen program could meet at both Magruder Park and the UTC facility, and each site would provide transportation to participating students.
The expanded teen program will focus on seventh through tenth grades, although it is open to any middle-schooler and high-schooler and their younger siblings. Any student in the youth program could participate in the mentorship program.
“We’re excited,” said Rollow. “We’re looking forward to expanding the teen program, in general, and, hopefully, to pull[ing] in funding to launch the mentorship program.”
When asked her hopes for the mentoring program, Hollingsworth said, “I believe that this is a small — yet important — step towards connecting young people in our community with caring adults. Any number of young people participating in this program is a success in my book.”
She continued, “A phenomenal success to me, however, would be a program with a waiting list of mentors waiting to be paired, an active schedule of events for mentees and mentors to connect, young people and adults recommending each other to the program, and the beginning of relationships that endure for the rest of the mentors’ and mentees’ lives.”
The City of Hyattsville continues to seek volunteers for its youth mentorship program. If interested, please contact Sydney Cross at 240.825.5126 or at In-kind donations are also welcome.