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July/August 2016

Mentoring ignites students’ passion and potential
By Carol Valentino-Barry

Carol Valentino-Barry is community outreach director and mentoring and leadership Instructor at Ridgewood High School in Norridge.

Mentoring can have a lasting impact on a student’s future life achievement, creates opportunity, and influences a new generation of leaders.”

The “Mentoring Mission” program at Ridgewood High School in Norridge establishes a tiered-network for increased support and achievement using the unique architecture of engaged community volunteers and stakeholders. Mentors include school board members, community and business leaders, civic and governmental leaders, parents, and alumni.

Since its inception in 1999, volunteers and peer mentors have mentored more than 3,000 freshmen at Ridgewood. Groups comprised of an adult volunteer, a peer mentor, and three to five freshmen learn and apply executive functioning skills to their daily lives. Freshmen receive support, but so, too, do their mentors. Teaching success habits makes the skills more “sticky” and memorable for the peer and adult mentors as well.

Another tier of support with the mentoring and leadership course helps students bridge the gap between academics and the real world, as students practice leadership and decision-making skills using Harvard Business School case studies. Partnering with United Airlines combines the academic and business worlds by providing internships, scholarships, and jobs to students in senior year and after graduation. This aligns with Harvard University’s Competitiveness Project and Lasting Impact study, which highlights the need of pioneers to scale up proven innovations and spread them across educational ecosystems.


Mentoring at Ridgewood began in 1999 in a much simpler version known as goal setting, which was a direct application of the school’s vision statement: “Students will set and achieve meaningful goals.” The template used for goal setting was a collaborative product, created from the input of students, staff and business partners, and their techniques and evaluation instruments for measuring personal, academic, and professional growth.

Goal setting started in study hall and then was placed in a nine-week learning skills class. Mentors, along with a junior or senior peer mentor, met three times with their mentees to set academic goals, check progress, and complete the goals. Learning Skills, unfortunately, became one of the casualties of budget cuts. But the unflappable mentors pressed on, and starting in 2006, the Mentoring Mission program became part of the freshman study hall, which is where it remains today.

Community engagement

The student and community connection to mentoring is multifaceted and invaluable. Freshmen explore careers as well as set academic goals which give direction to daily classwork. Moreover, mentoring raises aspirations. Involving parents and guardians in the mentoring and leadership course supports the students and simultaneously holds them completely accountable. With the advent of jobs and internships from United Airlines for seniors, a completely new skill set was introduced. Students enter a real-world competitive environment as they prepare resumes, develop work-readiness skills, and interview. Working on Harvard case studies allows seniors to extend their reach, setting their goals higher and striving to be their best.

Mentoring strengthens community connections. When adult constituents are emotionally connected to students, their relationship to the school becomes personal, their commitment deeper, and new ideas and resources surface each month. When fundraising support, field trip sites, job shadows, internship locations, career fair speakers, or history fair judges are needed, the mentors get involved. Mentors are the district’s biggest fans and contribute in a very significant and meaningful way.


Charles M. Duncan, senior vice president for technical operations with United Airlines, has been involved with the program for four years. Included in that time was implementing the Harvard case studies to bring more rigor to the program.

“My primary role is teaching in the classroom once each month. I really enjoy the case method format both as a student and instructor,” Duncan says. “We are not aware of any other high school in the country using case studies. My aim in using them is to force the students to think, express an opinion, and make decisions, all with incomplete information. This is what the real world is like, and they better be ready for it.”

United and Ridgewood have formed a special relationship that spans many individuals and activities.

“We have created a win-win that is as rewarding for United Airlines as it is for the community,” he says.

School board’s role

The Ridgewood High School Board of Education has played a pivotal role in the progress and continued success of the mentoring program. Board members and their spouses have not only served on the steering committee, but have recommended individuals to the program, and have themselves served as mentors. Board members have assisted in supporting the development of the program, donating their own time and resources to plan and participate. These board members act as role models to community members, parents, and alumni, demonstrating strength of character and commitment to the mission and vision of Ridgewood High School.

“I think the greatest part of the mentor/mentee experience is the relationship that develops among the group of students and mentor,” says Maria Palmieri Smith, a RHS board member since 2005. “The freshmen share their own struggles and have an adult and peer mentor to connect and support. The experience of giving back to others opens everyone’s eyes to the power of caring and giving.”

According to the Center for Public Education, “Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.” The RHS school board embraces and supports this tenet.

This best practice is a prescribed characteristic of effective school boards. Additionally, it dovetails into near perfect synchronicity with a critical component of Ridgewood’s stated mission: “Members of the Ridgewood High School community will collaborate to ensure that every student learns.”

Forming a community alliance of support for our students nurtures their success in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. The board’s visionary plan is part and parcel of the mentoring program.

“The school board is a visible part to the school community,” says Paul Draniczarek, a RHS board member since 2005 who also previously served on the Union Ridge District 86 Board of Education. “We are role models. I believe it’s important for board members to show their support of the students and get to know directly what their struggles and concerns are. It’s also important to support the program and the business partners as well, noticing and appreciating their participation in the students and the future of our community.”

The Mentoring Mission can be replicated in schools across the country. For more information, visit

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