Boldly venturing back to middle school. Valiant Reedies Mark Angeles ’15 and Katie Halloran ’15 volunteer as mentors at Lane Middle School, a couple of miles from campus. Photo by Daniel Cronin
To boldly go where no man has gone before—that was the mission of the starship Enterprise. But who would ever choose to go back to middle school, the accursed planet of cliques, acne, and algebra?
The answer is Reedies, who are braving the final frontier to help Portland middle schoolers navigate the treacherous minefields of adolescence. Reed has allied with Lane Middle School in a program known as LASER (Lane After School Education with Reed) that places Reedies in classrooms to assist and mentor the kids.
“It’s a good partnership,” says Ned Carson ’13, a Spanish major from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “In addition to being a stable presence in these kids’ lives, Reed students can step outside these brick buildings and realize there’s good education out there that isn’t high-level liberal arts education.”
Located in the Brentwood/Darlington neighborhood, just a couple of miles from Reed, Lane Middle School serves a large number of minority students and emigrants from Europe and states of the former Soviet Union. Roughly 86% of its 400 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
This year, 38 Reed volunteers have made a yearlong commitment to LASER, travelling to Lane once or twice a week. Some Reedies serve as interns, working with small groups of students in the classroom at the teacher’s direction. Others serve as mentors, spending time with individual students outside the classroom developing a big-brother/big-sister relationship.
While volunteering in general can be a rewarding experience, Reedies find there’s something special about working with middle school children, who—like them—are going through a time of transition.
“Middle school is an interesting time because the kids are grappling with these new tools,” says Ned, who has served as mentor and intern, and who spent a year as an assistant basketball coach. “They’re developing social skills and an ability to create communities that really mean something to them. The negative side of that is cliques, excluding people and being really mean in new and creative ways.”
Interns’ involvement is based upon their own experience and interests. This year several are volunteering in special education, music, and Spanish. They also participate in a program that prepares kids for college by building their academic skills, serving as examples by their very presence.
“When we got to Lane writing skills were extremely low,” says Fawn Livingston-Gray ’95, who has coordinated SEEDS (Students for Education, Empowerment, and Direct Service) at Reed for the last seven years. “Only 14% were passing. So we had a writing-tutoring program for a year while Lane made changes to their writing curriculum. After a year it wasn’t needed, but that’s an example of our being responsive to their needs.”
The mentoring program fosters after-school, one-on-one relationships between Reedies and Lane kids, many of whom suffer from instability due to poverty or, as the children of immigrants, find themselves enmeshed in a clash of cultures.
“It’s really about developing near-peer relationships, like an older brother, sister, or a friend who is there to challenge you and help you grow,” explains Mark Angeles ’15, who coordinates the mentoring program. “After-school programs keep kids who are struggling in class motivated to come to school. They know that there’s somebody they can talk to and hang out with, free from the stresses of classroom activities.”
Mentors engage their mentees in a variety of ways: playing games, making brownies, doing arts and crafts projects. Mark recalls a boy whose parents worked 10-hour days, seven days a week. The after-school program provided him with activities and interests other than watching television by himself for hours on end.
“Reedies recognize that these kids face challenges they may not have faced or that affluent people don’t face,” says Fawn. “They want to help them succeed.”
LASER began in 2007 after a similar program with Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School could no longer be sustained because to falling enrollment in that school. The program is also supported by Oregon Mentors, a nonprofit that serves youth mentoring programs. They help contextualize challenges middle-school children might face at home, with worries about fitting in and a changing body. Volunteers learn how to use positive reinforcement and basic friendship skills, like knowing when and how to listen.
“Mentoring is about developing a very basic friendship with someone a lot younger than you,” Ned says. “You’re dealing with a little human being, but it isn’t the little part that matters. It’s the human part. The little part might determine some of the ways this person is going to act, but if you just look at that you’re going to miss that there’s actually being another person right there.”
Working with children provides many “aha” moments, says Katie Halloran ’15, who coordinates the interns, but the reward comes from seeing kids become more engaged.
For example, one girl told her, “I used to be really good at math, but I’m not anymore.”
“She had all this stuff to deal with at home, but the idea that she could change so dramatically that she was not good at math anymore is something you address,” Katie says. “You affirm: ‘You are smart. You are good at math. You can do these things.’”
Despite the differences between middle school and college, Reedies discover Lane and Reed are both institutions with high standards that do good jobs of preparing students for the future.
“Lane has a really cool identity,” Ned says. “The teachers and students have a friendly, upbeat attitude about things and everyone is always doing things with a smile on their faces. The teachers care about those kids and do a really good job of preparing them for high school. It’s fun to see.”
“Mentoring isn’t going to solve everything,” Fawn says, “but it can have a small, broad impact on kids. We know it reduces chances that kids will drop out of school, have early parenting, or engage in drug and alcohol use.”
LASER gives Reedies the opportunity to confront social and economic inequities that stratify public education, gain firsthand teaching experience, and forge connections with the Portland community.