Pioneer seniors blaze a path to success for young students

7 elementary schools benefit from Trailblazers partnership

View a slide show of Pioneer students at Bach and Pattengill elementary schools:

By Carlina Duan
AAPSNews Service

For high school seniors involved in the Pioneer Trailblazers program, it’s a bittersweet moment of reflection: Finding themselves upon the steps of the elementary schools that ignited their 12-year journey through the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

These seniors have mentored students at elementary schools throughout the year and will leave behind a legacy not only within the hallways of Pioneer, but also at Bach, Dicken, Eberwhite, Haisley, Lawton, Lakewood, and Pattengill elementary schools.

The Trailblazers program is a unique opportunity for these students to tutor their “mentees” in academic subjects and engage them in social and scholarly livelihood.  The program’s mission is to spark a rich passion for education among the younger students and and to create role models and friends for elementary schoolers, so that they can achieve academic success.

Trailblazers originally started in 1996 as a pilot program between Pioneer High School and Lawton Elementary School by faculty member Jenni Zimmer, then a school psychologist.

Trailblazers at Bach
Pioneer Trailblazers spend time at Bach Elementary School and six other Ann Arbor elementaries, mentoring during the school year.

Zimmer said she recognized the power behind allowing youth to work directly with youth, and took advantage of Pioneer’s proximity to Lawton.  “I realized that there’s something special about an older student as opposed to an adult working with a younger student and serving as a mentor,” she said. “There’s a closeness there that can’t be replicated between a full adult and a child. I thought it had the potential to be quite powerful.”

The program has evolved into something much larger.  Trailblazers 2011 now incorporates seven participating elementary schools and involves approximately 150 high school seniors. The program receives funding from the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation.

During second semester of their junior year, students interested in Trailblazers undergo an application process, which consists of an essay, recommendation letters, and a one-on-one interview with Trailblazers coordinators Don Packard and Jon Stern. An important requisite is that students show a consistent attendance record, indicating dedication and responsibility to their classes.

Senior Samuelina Wright, a Trailblazer at Lakewood, said she enjoys educating others. “I’ve always loved helping people, teaching people,” she said. “For a while in middle school I actually wanted to become a teacher.”  Although her career aspirations have now changed, Wright says her passion for teaching is still a constant, and when presented with the opportunity to make use of it, “I figured, why not?”

Packard said the program broadens school students’ experiences. “Trailblazers is an opportunity for seniors to give back to their community, to extend responsibility, to give them some closure in their public school experience, to give them insight to the public school system,” he said, “It really opens their eyes and illuminates how hard elementary (students) have to work.”

Selected Trailblazers receive a two-week intensive training period at the start of the school year, where they are taught the necessary skills of “consistency, creativity, patience…” and other problem-solving tools, according to Packard.

The mentors are then assigned to mentees by the adult coordinators, who match based on such factors as gender and ethnicity. Oftentimes, mentors are assigned to an elementary school they attended – working in classrooms with their own elementary school teachers. Packard describes the situation as “a full circle. Those are the moments when it’s great for the teacher and for the (high school) student.”

Mentor and mentee work together throughout the entire school year, meeting during the school week for half-hour sessions to tutor and provide additional academic and social support. Each elementary school has a designated adult site supervisor who oversees progress and handles any problems.

Despite the organized system, mentors still face challenges. “I think some days, it’s a real test of patience,” said Wright, “It’s hard finding the line between being a friend to (my mentee) and being sort of almost a second teacher.”

‘Trailblazers is an opportunity for seniors to give back to their community …  It really opens their eyes and illuminates how hard elementary (students) have to work. – Don Packard, Trailblazers program coordinator

Packard cites another obstacle mentors generally face. “The hardest part of being a Trailblazer is that the (mentors) don’t see immediate results. They are oftentimes working for something intangible. They have to be able to explain things over again many different times and in many different ways. They have to be firm and resilient,” he said.

“The most common challenge for the mentors is keeping their kids on track, and sustaining work. It’s not about a power struggle. It’s about inspiring and instilling the desire to work.”

Zimmer noted that mentors also gain keener insight on how to appreciate their own public education experiences. “The mentors learn and appreciate that learning is not so easy for some children,” she said. “They also learn that many of their lives are quite privileged and that not everyone has a parent at home who takes a keen interest in their homework … who works into the wee hours with them on a science  fair project and the like.

“I think the experience enlightens them on many fronts. And of course the impact on the mentees is immense – academically and psychologically. I think it promotes self-confidence and motivation to learn in a big way.”

AAPS Educational Foundation logoYet throughout the challenges, Trailblazers are frequently rewarded with the experiences and skills that pave future roads for exploration. Packard says, “We get Pioneer students that come back after graduating, and they’re now involved in social work. And they’re really enjoying it. They got that start at Trailblazers.”

Packard describes Trailblazers as a mutually beneficial relationship. “The true value of the program really comes from the fact that both the high school and the elementary school students learn a lot about themselves,” he said. “High schoolers learn about the education process, and elementary schoolers learn through that process.”

Packard explained that some of the mentors went on fifth-grade Winter Survival trips and enjoyed other things they did as young students. “They get a different perspective, and it’s a powerful perspective,” he said. “Oftentimes, it’s easy for a (high school) student to be selfish. You’re worried about your grades, your learning. But when you’re doing things for someone else, it takes true commitment and responsibility.”

This responsibility resonates beyond the classroom. “I get feedback from the parents of the mentees,” continued Packard. “Trailblazers really adds to the culture of the elementary school. For their kids, school matters now. They’re getting the support that they need. They look forward to seeing their Trailblazers every single day of the week.”

Packard views Trailblazers as a powerful model for student interaction. “I’ve really learned the value of relationships over the last few years,” he said. “When I see 18-year-olds working with 6-year-olds, it really melts my heart. I’ve learned the power of encouraging my students to work with their mentees, and I’ve been able to see that when I get out of the way and let them work, they do some really amazing things.”

Zimmer agrees. “I think the program brings out the giving, generous, kind, compassionate side of young adults that may not have been cultivated as much before. I hear later that these same students become volunteers in their communities and at college, seeking to replicate the goodness they felt in their hearts from the Trailblazer experience.”

For Wright, the calm atmosphere of the program contributes to her day. “Sometimes, Trailblazers can be the highlight of my day because the kids will just say the funniest things,” she said, “Instead of a bunch of teenagers all budding around trying to do a physics lab or take a test, it’s so nice to be in a classroom that’s much more mellow and slower-paced. It’s a really nice contrast to the stress of high school.”

After 12 years of public high school – a journey that, for some, began as a step into the elementary school they now serve – Pioneer Trailblazers will graduate this June with diplomas in hand, memories in hearts and their mentees moving into the future with optimism.

Carlina Duan is a senior at Pioneer High School and editor of The Optimist, Pioneer’s student newspaper. She is a frequent contributor to the AAPSNews.

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