Wednesdays are special at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. It’s the day volunteers make their way to the school’s cafeteria to catch up with their favorite students over lunch, juice boxes and a bit of math.
The Leesburg elementary school has pioneered a mentoring program that has seen such success that other Loudoun school administrators are looking to it as a model.
The program, Study Buddies, pairs each mentor with two students. The mentors meet with their buddies once a week to eat lunch, play games and brush up on their math skills.
Most schools have some sort of an initiative to bring in volunteers and mentors to work with students. But what makes Study Buddies different, according to Evergreen Mill Assistant Principal Daniel Lani, is its new partnership with K2M, a Leesburg-based medical device company.
“One of the things we are always looking for is to connect with professionals outside of the school,” Lani said. “That’s really key.”
Hanging out regularly with an engineer or a medical professional shows students where their math lessons could take them one day.
“We’ve seen an improvement in SOL [Standards of Learning] scores and students’ attitude toward school work,” he said, noting that he has a running waiting list of students who want to be in the program. “Everybody wants a buddy.”
Students must be recommended for the program by a teacher. The 38 spots are saved for third- through fifth-graders who have a need for extra academic help and have shown they are well-behaved and hard-working.
While the volunteers are asked to support students’ math skills, Study Buddies is more than a tutoring program. Lani says about 10 percent of its focus is on tutoring, and about 90 percent on mentoring.
“How students feel about themselves carries over into how successful they will be in the classroom,” he said. “We want kids to know that, besides their teacher, there is another adult who shows belief in them.”
Jency, a fifth-grader at Evergreen Mill, was one of the program’s first students. She said her buddy’s support has helped her bring up her grades. “The things I don’t really get, my buddy helps me get,” she said. “It’s just a lot of fun.”
Mary Chavez, an inventory control technician at K2M, said she signed up for Study Buddies because she wanted to spend more time with kids, and her company made it easy to participate.
“I’ve loved getting to know the kids and see their progress,” she said during a recent Study Buddies session. She grinned toward one of her buddies, 9-year-old Aniyah. “This week we worked up to multiplication.”
Study Buddies started two-and-a-half years ago as an idea initially pitched by a parent. In its first two years, it was manned by volunteers from St. James Episcopal Church who served as students’ buddies. This year, with the nine volunteers provided by K2M, the buddies now total 19.
Lani has nominated K2M to receive an award from the Loudoun School-Business Partnership Executive Council recognizing the company and its employees for their work with students.
He also wants to share the Study Buddies model with other Loudoun County school administrators during a meeting next month. “It’s certainly not a difficult model to re-implement, and we’ve found it very effective. It’s made real changes in our kids’ lives.”