Program Profile: Professional Mentors

As part of the Illinois Quality Afterschool Program’s technical assistance, SEDL and ISBE pair new 21st CCLC project directors with more seasoned directors for a mentoring relationship. Our goal is to provide ongoing peer support to first-year and requesting grantees, facilitate a community of practice, and support continuous improvement that will foster high-quality 21st CCLC programs. Peer mentors share strategies, expertise, and past experiences and also problem solve with mentees. Working together during the school year, the mentors and mentees meet face-to-face at least twice and also communicate via email, telephone, and online chats.

For this month’s Program Profile, we interviewed Kim Sellers and Jodee Craven. Sellers is project director of Bureau Henry Stark Regional Office of Education 21st CCLC, and Craven is program director for The HUB Project 21st CCLC in Rochelle. Sellers has also served as Craven’s mentor since Fall 2013, and we asked the two to talk about their mentoring relationship.

IQA Quarterly: Briefly describe your mentoring experience.

Craven: Kim Sellers and I were introduced in September of 2013. We initially met [face-to-face] to introduce ourselves and get a feel for how each other’s programs run.

Sellers: We had many conversations over the year. I initially met her and the grant administrator in Rochelle. We then communicated through email and phone. Topics we discussed included program governance and program structure.

Craven: We had intermittent contact throughout the winter and then I traveled to Kewanee in mid-April of 2014 to visit [Kim’s] sites.

IQA Quarterly: What are some of the issues you have addressed?

Craven: Our program was struggling with program design. I was hoping to gain some insight on what daily operations at [Bureau Henry Stark’s] sites looked like and how we might be able to replicate some of their successes. Needless to say, the visit was a resounding success. Because Kim took the time to show me some afterschool sites that were similar to our sites in Rochelle, I was able to take new information and ideas back to our community and begin to redesign our program.

Many of the changes we made were small; however, the two big takeaways from the visit included rethinking our program scheduling and site coordinator involvement during the regular school day. The impact of those two changes on our program has been enormous. Retention and attendance at all three of our 21st CCLC sites have skyrocketed. Teacher and administrator support has increased, as well as parental involvement. The overall “feel” of the program has been more positive at all levels, from the students to the teachers, parents, support staff, bus drivers, and administration.

IQA Quarterly: Some professionals are reluctant to be mentors because they worry about the time commitment. Is there a way to be an effective mentor while still having time for your own professional responsibilities?

Sellers: It does take time; however, I learned SO much! Some of Jodee’s program strengths were challenges within my own program, and I was able to take many ideas away from our conversations.

IQA Quarterly: What is the secret to a productive mentor–mentee relationship?

Sellers: I think what made our relationship successful was that we had similar challenges. We connected very easily. I tried to always be supportive and offer guidance. I feel I learned as much from Jodee as she may have learned from me.

Craven: Our relationship was productive because we understood each other’s challenges. Our communities are demographically similar, the program design is similar, and we both manage school-based programs. The other key to the successful relationship was that we made time for the mentoring relationship. The benefits that came from collaborating and problem solving with Kim and her staff far outweighed any pull on my time away from the office.

IQA Quarterly: What suggestions would you have for new afterschool leaders who are assigned or are looking for a mentor?

Craven: You should always look for a mentor who is involved with a program that looks similar to your own. The relationship will struggle if you are unable to relate to one another. Although rural and urban programs share some of the same struggles, there are many challenges that are unique to rural communities. And although I feel there is opportunity to grow and learn in any relationship, Kim and I were able to discuss challenges and solutions that made very real sense for our program.

IQA Quarterly: What have you learned from being a mentor?

Sellers: I enjoyed getting to know Jodee. Our communities are very similar, and we have similar challenges. Through this experience there was a mutual respect for each other’s programming efforts. We still call each other to discuss programming issues today, beyond the life of the mentoring program.

I have been a project director since 2002. This was the first mentor–mentee program I have been part of. As the mentor, I feel I gained as much as the mentee . . . maybe more! I have collaborated with other project directors through the years, but the organized mentoring program supported by SEDL has been such a help!

IQA Quarterly: What other types of mentoring take place in your 21st CCLCs.

Sellers: Although it is not a formal mentoring program, I try to provide professional development opportunities and networking time for my site coordinators monthly. There is so much we can learn from networking and communicating with others who face the same programming challenges.

Craven: Our site coordinators have students that they check in with regularly during the regular school day. We have retired teachers who volunteer once a week and work with specific students, as identified by the classroom teacher. We also have high school students who volunteer weekly during after school time and work with the elementary and middle school students both on academics and relationship building.

The 21st CCLC students have embraced the relationships they have formed. They look forward to the days that the mentors are working with them. Our middle school students have begun to seek out their site coordinator during the school day to discuss homework, ask for help, and share accomplishments. It seems as though with many of our students it has taken a few years for them to establish a trusting relationship with individuals working with or volunteering for The HUB Project; however, we seem to have turned a corner this year and are finally seeing a payoff with our HUB students. They are beginning to open up more to the staff and volunteers in the program, and attendance rates have increased dramatically.