Middle school can be an intimidating time – both for young people, and for those who work with them.
At a local volunteer fair, Clare was drawn to Higher Achievement’s data-driven program model, commitment to social justice, and location right in her neighborhood. It was the opportunity she was looking for to be more connected to her community, but Clare felt initial hesitation at getting involved as a mentor. “I was a little intimidated to work with middle schoolers,” remembers Clare. “But I knew I was missing out on getting to know a big population of young people that tend to be written off.”
Clare began mentoring her first group of 7th-grade scholars in 2016 at Higher Achievement’s Ward 6 Achievement Center. “I was so focused on closely following every piece of curriculum when I first started,” recalls Clare, laughing. “But over time, I learned how to complete the lessons while building relationships with scholars, with support from Higher Achievement staff and other mentors.”
It was those relationships that were transformational for Clare and her scholars. Clare watched her scholars mature and develop from 5th grade to 8th grade, all while encouraging their academic and personal pursuits. “You can really see both the kid and the adult in middle school students,” observes Clare. “They are just so sincere, trying to figure everything out. They are good listeners and want to have discussions—and they are funny!”
During one week at Center, Clare led a lesson that touched upon the gender pay gap. Two scholars in her group continued to make connections with the topic throughout the year. “Scholars begin to really engage with issues when they notice society isn’t the way they think it should be,” says Clare. “They are open to learning, and they continue to think and evolve their opinions over time.”
Clare faced one of her biggest challenges as a mentor during a full year of virtual programming in the 2020-2021 school year. She provided critical small-group math support throughout the year, but missed the deep relationships built in person. Clare recalls the challenges of remote learning and meeting scholars where they were. “They weren’t able to engage in their lessons at school and you could see their Zoom fatigue and general weariness.”
Clare felt relief and joy returning to in-person programming this fall. “I couldn’t wait to see the scholars in person! I can interact with them differently, and they are much more engaged,” says Clare. “Now that we are together, they can see in a tangible way that we are here for them.”
Now as a high school readiness mentor, Clare partners with 8th-grade scholars as they explore career options and submit applications for high school. “Some scholars know exactly what they want, and others need to explore further. Either way, I get to help them figure out each step of the process,” says Clare.
Every aspect of preparation for high school presents a learning opportunity for scholars to ask questions, analyze problems, and gain confidence in their decision-making abilities. Clare stands alongside scholars as they grapple with discussions on societal expectations of professionalism and consider how to ask for teacher recommendations.
“The relationships are what keep me coming back,” affirms Clare. “I feel much more hopeful about the world because of my scholars. They genuinely want to make the world a better place.”
Higher Achievement scholars are shaping the future of our communities. Higher Achievement mentors like Clare are true partners in scholars’ engagement with the world around them, encouraging scholars to ask questions, use their voice, and share their talents.