On a recent Thursday, after the school day was over, a classroom at John Winthrop School in Bridgeport filled with smiles, soft chatter and laughter.
Middle-school students at Winthrop sat with mentors from Sacred Heart University and went over homework, talked about their day and, during down time, showed off their dance moves. The group was part of the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentorship Program (J-Z AMP). For 15 years, the program has brought middle school students and SHU students together. Run by SHU’s office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning, the program helps children who are below grade level, but also provides a social and emotional outlet.
Monday through Thursday, small groups of SHU mentors take a short trip to Winthrop School to make a big difference. The program allows 30 middle school students to be mentored and tutored by the SHU students, who take the mentorship very seriously. They are tasked with two students to mentor over the course of three years; they see the youth through their entire middle school education. The goal is to instill a strong academic foundation in the children so they acquire the necessary skills to succeed in high school and graduate.
Katie Prendella, the J-Z AMP coordinator and a SHU graduate, runs the program. She decides what students should be allowed in the program and works with the three Winthrop School teachers who are involved in J-Z AMP. For the first hour of the program, students work on their homework with mentors and then the next hour usually involves a hands on project or guest speaker. The group also goes on about four to five field trips a year.
“I think it’s great,” Prendella said. Statistics show that students who attend J-Z AMP have an 89 percent graduation rate compared to the city’s average of 66 percent. “We encourage them to understand work and to want to do the work. We also assist them emotionally. Middle school can be a rough time for kids. We give them emotional and academic supports.”
Prendella said throughout the year she sees shy students open up and grades improve. “We’re very proud,” she said, referring to both groups of students. The SHU students do get a stipend for their participation, but Prendella said they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t care about making a difference.
Shannon Saranich, a senior majoring in education, mentored two students for three years. As a senior, she was not assigned any students to directly mentor this school year, but oversees the group and helps out when she can.
“I got an email about this program during my freshman year,” Saranich recalled. “And I applied. I remember going through this intense interview.” Saranich was accepted and was assigned two young boys to mentor. “This was the best experience for me.” Her students still come back to the program to visit and fill her in on what’s going on in their lives.
“It’s really rewarding,” Saranich said. “We go on field trips and we get to see the real personalities of all the students.”
Elizabeth McLean, a graduate student in her first year of the physical therapy program, also oversees the group with Saranich. She said she sees the improvement in students’ grades and also notices how some students start to really love school. “For some, even if they don’t love it, they realize they have to do it,” McLean said.
Students didn’t have too much homework to do on Thursday afternoon; they had the following day, Veterans Day, off and were looking forward to their three-day weekend. SHU students had some fun with the middle school students. Female mentors put water bottles in their hair to look like silly troll characters and took selfies with the students. The group also participated the viral Internet trend, “the mannequin challenge,” where participants stay frozen in an action while being recorded. Students all took their roles in freezing their bodies very seriously as Prendella recorded everyone with her phone.
Seventh grade science teacher, Susan Beres, is one of the three teachers involved in J-Z AMP. She’s been with the program for 14 years.
“It’s a beautiful thing. A lot of students come through,” she said. “They stay friends with their mentors.” Beres gave much credit to the mentors, who she said are all busy college students, for being committed and dedicated mentors. “They come here and they really make a connection,” Beres said.