EXTRA-SPECIAL FRIENDS

BY GINNY MILLER

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Shuntavious Tucker likes to read and wants to get better at it. He receives weekly help from his mentor, state Rep. Brian Aldridge, who’s been a positive male role model for Shun for two years.

“We read books. Sometimes we go to the gym to play basketball,” said Shun, a third-grader at Thomas Street Elementary School.

With the second edition of the Mississippi Curriculum Test to be administered this week to the state’s students in grades 2-8, Shun and Aldridge have been working overtime on improving the 9-year-old’s reading skills.

“We’re getting ready for the MCT test,” Aldridge said. “More than anything we’re really working on his AR reading. His comprehension is really good.”

In the Accelerated Reader program, students set their own goals and are tested on the books they read, earning points if they pass that typically can be redeemed for prizes. Not long ago in the Thomas Street Elementary library, Shun read four books aloud to Aldridge, then aced each computer quiz.

“Practice makes perfect,” observed Aldridge, who’s been a mentor since he was a student at Mississippi State University.

Though Aldridge volunteers on his own, many organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi, provide mentors to children.

“We pride ourselves in one-on-one mentoring,” said Angie Owen, program specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi. “We use high school seniors and sometimes juniors. We also have adults.”

About 200 students are being mentored through the organization, Owen said, but 150 more are on a waiting list because more mentors are needed.

Most visits occur during school hours, though some are after-school, and all students must be referred by a teacher.

Focus not on academic help

Even though many children in the program receive help with their school work, Owen said its main focus isn’t working on academics or behavior.

“A mentor is not a parent and is not another teacher,” she said. “Developing a friendship is the most important thing. The second important thing is to have fun.”

Tupelo businessman Bill Collins mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi for years, recalling the experience as rewarding. Aside from his family, “It was the most fulfilling time of my life.”

“A lot of times they just need somebody to look up to,” said Collins, who frequently tutored a student in math, spelling and English but just as often was available “to be a shoulder to lean on, an open ear.”

Owen said many of the mentors she works with are on the clock, with the blessing of their employers.

“We really appreciate businesses and organizations that allow their employees to do this during working hours,” she said. “It makes a happy employee and it’s good for the community.”

As for the children, the benefits include confidence in school work and better grades.

“We provide mentors for children in need,” Owen said. “Most of our children just need a little help in self-esteem. They just need an extra-special friend.”

Contact Daily Journal education writer
Ginny Miller at (662) 678-1582 or ginny.miller@djournal.com. Also read
her education blog, Inside the Backpack,
at the djournal.com Blog Center.