ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The Big Brothers Big Sisters “Bigs in Schools” program at Peabody-Burns High School has a twist that sets it apart from other similar projects.
“What’s unusual about our program at Peabody/Burns is that our administration has made a community-service class available to our high school students,” said Robi Alstrom, teacher, BBBS case worker and member of the BBBS Marion County Board of Directors.
High school students who sign up for a community-service class to become a big brother or big sister receive a pass/fail grade and get credit toward graduation.
By December, about 50 high school students and community adult mentors will be big brothers and big sisters to children in the elementary school in Peabody.
And 16 of those mentors are high school students currently signed up to receive credit for their community service at the school.
“We feel like this is a big deal, “Alstrom said. “We’ve taken a small district, and we really have some good numbers here.”
Nationally, BBBS began the Bigs in Schools program as a means of reaching more children. It’s designed to match high school students and adults in the community with younger students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Instead of meeting outside the school environment, they meet during school hours, work within the structured school setting and follow the school calendar.
“What we do is, we have our list of volunteers and what times they’re available,” Alstrom said. “And then we try to match that up when the student is available. So most of them are probably not meeting during their core-subject time.”
BBBS mentors help with school work, play games and talk as they strive to build a relationship with their match and help improve self-esteem.
There are no requirements for a little brother or little sister to be in the program.
“They don’t have to be at risk or from a single-parent family,” Alstrom said. “It’s just a need to have a big (brother or sister).”
The Bigs in Schools program at Peabody/Burns began in January when principal Mary Brown agreed to let high school students leave a seminar/study hall period one day a week and meet with a little brother or sister.
“This year, we don’t have a seminar in our schedule,” Alstrom said. “So as a way to compensate for that, we made the community-service class available.”
All student mentors must be enrolled in their sophomore through senior year.
“For the community-service class, we also check with the office to be sure the student has good grades and is in good standing,” Alstrom said.
“And we check with the teachers to be sure they feel this is a responsibility the students can handle.”
After conducting background checks, Alstrom obtains three references per student mentor and interviews them during the summer.
“It’s fun to see high school kids come in,” she said. “You do the interview, and they don’t want to do the interview because they’re so excited. They want to get that little person already, and they want to start meeting.”
Not all Bigs in Schools students at Peabody/Burns are mentoring for community-service credit.
Eight students mentor during their homeroom period, and six adults from the community come to the school to mentor.
Community-service “Bigs” have a 90-minute block of time two times a week and a 45-minute block once a week with their “Littles.”
Those students who aren’t in the community-service class spend about 40 minutes a week with their Little, and the adult mentors meet once a week for about 45 minutes.
“One of the weaknesses of our school district is our reading scores,” Alstrom said. “And so we have a lot of kids in the Title 1 Program.”
Children who are identified with a reading delay of any kind are matched with a big brother or big sister, and they focus on reading during their scheduled visits.
During the summer, Alstrom asked the Title 1 reading teacher to spend an hour with the Bigs and teach them skills to help their Littles with reading problems during the coming school year, Alstrom said.
“Several of the kids will have either two big brothers or big sisters, and they might have one as a mentor and one as a reading match.”
Alstrom said the Bigs in Schools program at Peabody/Burns had a slow start in the beginning.
“But once we got three to four matches established, it just really took off. And in our first year, we had 26 matches meeting.”
Bigs and Littles move together as they graduate up a grade throughout their school years.
“Our goal is to keep the same Little with the same Big as long as we can,” Alstrom said.
This past summer, 11 of those matches closed because the Big graduated or the Little moved away from the district. But Alstrom said the program is so successful that there are 30 matches currently and 10 more who will be matched within the month.
“And we’re still building on that,” she said. “I have volunteers who don’t have anybody yet, which is very unusual. Usually, there’s a very long waiting list of children who want a big brother or big sister. We have just had such good luck.”
All matches have folders in which they log their activities. And if a Little is absent or misses work in a particular subject, the teachers are encouraged to slide that work into the folder.
“So when the volunteers get there, they see that this needs to be done and help the students keep up with school work,” Alstrom said.
Bigs and Littles have opportunities to go to the library to read, play basketball in the gymnasium, go out on the playground, play board games, paint and cook together.
“We try to match our Littles and Bigs on interest-to have fun together,” Alstrom said.
One little brother even taught his big brother how to play chess.
“I thought that was so neat-a reversal of roles,” Alstrom said. “And yet the Big was so excited because he won one time.”
The program has been a success, Alstrom said, because of the cooperative effort between the teachers, administration and volunteers.
“It’s the people-we’ve had great support,” Alstrom said. “There’s no way I could have done this by myself.”
Site coordinators Sally Barnaby and Kim Topham help with intake, principal Brown and high-school counselor Katie Pankratz work with scheduling, and elementary-school principal Ken Perry opens the elementary building for matches to meet together.
“But more than anything, I have great volunteers,” Alstrom said. “They’re the kind of people you’d want your own kids to hang out with.”
Alstrom said she is willing to share what she’s learned and meet with other schools and administrators who have questions about the Peabody/Burns Bigs in Schools program and community-service credit.
“Just yesterday, I met with Gerry Henderson, the superintendent of the Marion school district, and talked to him about what we do here to help them out to get (Bigs in Schools) going there,” she said.
“But each school is a little bit different. This is not my program, it’s not Marion County’s program.
“We want it to be each school’s program.”
And because the program is new at Peabody/Burns, Alstrom said they have difficulties to work on to make it better.
“Our biggest thing we’re working on this year is communication,” she said.
When students are absent, the Big or Little doesn’t always get the message that they won’t be meeting.
“It’s kind of a problem, but we’re working on it,” she said.
Alstrom uses outcome-evaluation forms at the end of the year to judge the success of the program.
“When we first make our match, we fill out a base-line survey,” she said. “And at the end of each school year, we have the parent, teacher, case worker and volunteer all fill out a form (to determine) if they saw improvement or not.”
Looking into the future of the program, she said she wants to see the number of matches grow.
“And we’re hoping to have more group activities-movie night or game night-and at some point a paid case manager to take over what I do. If we get bigger, it will have grown beyond me.”
And why does she do this?
“If you could talk to any of those little brothers or sisters, you would know why we do this,” Alstrom said.
“It is amazing the difference one person can make in the life of a child.”