New mentoring program will help Austin students 'Get REAL' about life decisions
Soon a new 'Get REAL' after-school group-mentoring program will target middle school students in an area of Austin with a high juvenile crime rate, according to program organizers.
"The REAL part of the Get REAL program stands for Relationships, Experiences, Activities and Learning," said Lillianne Goeders, Texas AgriLife Extension Service agent for 4-H in Travis County. "The program will help kids realize the importance of making good life decisions, including staying in school."
Goeders said the program is funded through a $45,000 grant from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services of the city of Austin. Program activities will be administered through the 4-H Children and Parents Involved in Technology and Literacy, 4-H CAPITAL, program and AmeriCorps programs of AgriLife Extension.
"The program is designed to provide middle school students with experiences and relationships for staying healthy and reaching their personal goals," she said.
Get REAL will be initiated at Mendez Middle School, 5106 Village Square Dr., in the Austin Independent School District, and at John P. Ojeda Junior High School, 4900 McKinney Falls Parkway in the Del Valle Independent School District.
Both Mendez and Ojeda serve students in the 78744 zip code, an area that presents some special challenges, said Stephanie Hayden, family and youth services manager for the city of Austin.
"The area has been identified as one with a lot of juvenile crime," said Hayden. "And mentoring has been proven to have a positive influence on deterring that sort of crime."
Hayden added that the time between middle school and high school is when students are at particularly high risk for dropping out.
"There are a lot of community programs targeted for elementary school kids," she said. "The grant for the Get REAL program is to help older kids who are at an age when they start to question authority and need adult guidance."
The mentor program will take a group approach, pairing an adult instructional specialist with four to six middle school students. Mentors and students will work together on a long-term project selected in keeping with student interests. Adult instruction specialists will be provided through the county's AgriLife Extension office.
Mentor-student projects will include activities related to music, science, athletics, cooking, nutrition, arts and crafts, and other subjects of interest to that age group, Goeders said.
"Instructors go through a background check and are thoroughly vetted before they are allowed to be mentors," she said. "They will also be trained using the 4-H club model for youth mentoring in after-school programs."
Program goals include helping students develop character, learn leadership and communications skills, build self-esteem and self-control, and understand positive ways to resolve conflicts, she said.
Students will meet with the mentor once a week for a couple of hours to work on the project, develop a learning relationship, and acquire skills and knowledge that will serve them in life, Goeders said.
Ojeda is a "hub campus," serving a broad area and bringing together students from throughout the Del Valle district of east Austin, while Medez is in the middle of the targeted zip code area, said program coordinators.
Goeders said she expects initial effort at the schools to reach about 80 students, but hopes to build on that number as the program progresses.
"We've already seen a lot of excitement and interest in the program," she said.
Goeders said two "meet-and-greet" sessions will be held at Ojeda in January to determine how many parents would be willing to commit to picking up their children at the end of the Friday after-school mentoring sessions.
Program coordinators are also hoping the Del Valle school district will consider extending Friday bus service to provide after-school transportation for participating students.
"Mendez Middle School doesn't pose the same transportation challenges because it serves a much smaller geographic area and most students don't ride the bus," Goeders said.
Program activities are intended to supplement but not take the place of efforts by the schools and other youth-oriented community programs, organizers said.
"We're committed to partnering or working with other organizations or efforts that are already at the schools or striving toward similar goals, such as Boys Girls Clubs," said Noel Rodriguez, education instructional specialist with the Travis County 4-H CAPITAL program and Get REAL program coordinator.
"The program also will help meet the overall goal of the city's Community Youth Development program by having a positive impact on youth, enhancing their development as responsible citizens and helping alleviate conditions that may lead to juvenile crime," Goeders added.
The first meet-and-greet parents' sign-up activity will take place at Ojeda at 5 p.m. on Jan. 9; the second will be at 10 a.m. on Jan. 10.
"Mentors will serve as role models and provide positive experiences as well as an understanding ear to the students," Rodriguez said. "We believe that as the students work with their mentor toward project goals they will build a relationship that will have a positive influence on their behavior, their choices, their character and their future success."