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Students Help At-Risk Middle-Schoolers Stay in School and Thrive

Long-term program has affected the lives of more than 200 students

Student volunteers and participants in the AMP program pose for a photo during an event last fall.

In 2001, a cohort of Sacred Heart University undergraduate students started working with local middle-schoolers who appeared to be at risk academically and were projected to abandon their education well before graduating high school. The goal was to intervene and put the youngsters on a path to a more educated and successful future.

In 2016, SHU’s Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program (AMP) is still going strong, celebrating its 15th year of ensuring that the students of Bridgeport’s John Winthrop School succeed in their studies and beyond. In that time, more than 100 SHU students have helped over 200 middle-schoolers.

“This is a great example of what we believe at Sacred Heart in regard to our mission of reaching out to help the community around us,” says Andrea Canuel, assistant director of SHU’s Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning, and the AMP program coordinator. “We have this really strong relationship and a really strong commitment with a specific community and a specific school. It’s a long-term program that has impacted the lives of hundreds of students.”

The SHU students start mentoring in their freshman or sophomore year. Each connects with two Winthrop students, with whom they work for three years, from sixth through eighth grade.

“It’s a really strong commitment on the part of Sacred Heart students—to make a three-year, voluntary commitment to something that’s not an athletic team or some other kind of on-campus activity,” Canuel says. “And it’s a really good example of one of the best ways our students engage in the community.”

The educational outreach to Winthrop students includes arts activities and science experiments. The program also brings the middle-schoolers on field trips; this past year featured educational excursions to the Bronx Zoo, the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk and the Sports Center of Connecticut in Shelton.

The past academic year’s curriculum centered on media literacy, in collaboration with faculty from SHU’s School of Communication & Media Arts. “The students were introduced to the concept of being more critical consumers of media,” Canuel explains. “In this age of everyone having a smart phone and being on social media—as well as all the traditional media of movies, TV and commercials—the curriculum helped students have more awareness about the messages that they’re receiving.”

The media literacy curriculum led to a unique opportunity for the program to be featured at SHU’s recent Action Coalition for Media Education Summit 2016. A sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grader from the SHU-Winthrop program sat for a panel discussion—the only student presenters at the conference.

“The Academic Mentoring Program has been essential to the success of John Winthrop students over the past 15 years,” says Julie Gonzalez, a sixth-grade teacher at Winthrop. “Middle school is a transitional time for our youth. The Sacred Heart mentors are not only there to provide academic help to their mentees, but also to build relationships with our teens and to counsel them through difficult situations.”

Gonzalez says the SHU students’ influence extends years beyond the end of middle school. “The AMP mentors also offer our scholars a first-hand look at college life, with all of its possibilities and challenges,” she says. “The mentees learn the importance of a strong work ethic, no matter what path you choose in life.”

Jennifer Russell, a seventh-grade history teacher at Winthrop, underscores the effect SHU mentors have on Winthrop students. “AMP is a program that my students look forward to because they have a person who they can confide in and who is not judgmental of them—they can talk to a person whenever they are having issues and even if they just want to laugh. When AMP is not in session, my students feel very down, but I do know that their mentor is just a text away.”