Helping a Frankford Elementary student complete a reading assignment on Monday morning, Joanne Busalacchi wore a sweatshirt that read: “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.”
The quote was attributed to writer and poet Garrsion Keillor but it seems to serve as a motto for Busalacchi and many other locals like her. The retired Maryland school teacher spends four hours a week at Frankford Elementary as one of the roughly 160 mentors in the school’s HOSTS (Help One Student To Succeed) mentoring program, helping students with academics as well as some personal issues.
“The biggest thing is to encourage them,” Busalacchi said. “We read together and I do a lot of work with helping them understand what they are reading.”
Some of the 118 Frankford students currently participating in the mentoring program met with their mentors on Monday morning on one side of the rural school. They listened attentively to their adult counterparts and displayed a bond with them that was undoubtedly mutual. Neither group seemed to harbor doubts about the students’ ability to be educated, despite overwhelming adversity facing them.
A quick rundown of Frankford’s student population: more than 75 percent of the 454 students there are classified as low-income; roughly 40 percent are Hispanic, many of whom were born outside of the United States and have parents who do not speak English.
And, with that perspective, some seemingly contradictory Frankford Elementary state testing results: 98 percent of Frankford third-graders met the reading standard on the 2006 test; more than 95 percent of the school’s fifth-graders did the same; and those results are more than 30 percentage points higher than just seven years ago.
“Having more than 150 mentors come in and work with our students makes a big difference in their academic performance each year,” said Duncan Smith, Frankford’s principal. “It’s a really wonderful thing to see how they interact with the students.”
Students such as Mexican native Martin Beranza, a fourth-grader at Frankford, personify the effect volunteers in programs such as HOSTS have on student progress.
“It’s great,” Beranza, said of the program. “Sometimes when I read; I get the words wrong. It helps learn a little bit about things you don’t understand.”
A 2004 Public/Private Ventures survey of parties involved in a national mentoring program found that students who had a mentor displayed better behavior, more self-confidence, enhanced school performance and a more positive attitude toward learning, according to information available at www.delawarementoringcouncil.com.
Mentors in Frankford’s program outnumber those in other district schools by at least 90, helping more students achieve that progress. It is also one of the biggest mentoring programs in the state, according to Lynn Paul, an outreach official with the Delaware mentoring council.
“Most absolutely aren’t that large,” Paul said of the local program. “We understand that mentoring isn’t the cure-all for everything, but we believe it is a very important piece of the puzzle to help young people succeed. Any child can succeed.”
The nearly 160 Frankford volunteers put in a collective 6,427 hours to the program last year — to help the students “succeed” — and this week received an award for their dedication from the White House. The Presidential Volunteer Service Gold Award is awarded to volunteer programs based on the number of volunteer hours accumulated. Mentors received a pin and a personal letter from the White House at a Tuesday ceremony.
“The program, by far, is still thriving,” said Renee Clark, the director of the program who received an unsung-hero award Tuesday and is praised by many for her work with the program. “The whole school is cooperative with the program and the kids are getting the skills they need. The best thing about the program is that we’re community-based.”
George Beckett, who showed up to mentor on Monday, has been volunteering with the program since its inception eight years ago. He said that he still volunteers to serve as a role model and provide some direction; he believes that he is succeeding.
“You only have a short amount of time to get a lot done but I feel like I’m helping the students,” he said. “A lot of them don’t have a male figure in their family.” So he fills the void, as do many of the program’s volunteers.
Laila Skofteland, an Argentina-born former school teacher, volunteers her time and her bilingual skills to the mentoring program; she is one of five Spanish-speaking mentors helping break students’ language barriers.
“This is my way of helping out in the community where there are so many kids who come to the States and don’t know a word of English,” she said. “You help them feel confidence. It’s a great program.”
Volunteers such as Skofteland, Beckett and Busalacchi show up week after week to dedicate their time to that program and, more specifically, to the positive progress of the school’s students.
They sit with them half-hour after half-hour, bonding with them and not only teaching them new words but instilling in them confidence and a positive attitude toward learning. Or maybe they are just taking advantage of the positive attitude already there. Either way, they certainly don’t seem to be wasting their time.
When asked about the program on Monday, third-grader Zachary Layell not only seemed proud to learn; he seemed excited about the prospect.
“I get to learn new words,” he said.