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How Chicago execs are transforming schools — and students, too
During Jim Hoeg's first assignment as a volunteer with the Big Shoulders Fund Stock Market Project, heasked eighth-graders for ideas on how to pick stocks.
The first hands that went up gave the answers you'd expect, he says. “I like candy bars, so I'd buy Hershey'sstock. And I like cheese, so I'd buy Kraft,” recalls the portfolio manager at Chicago-based Citadel LLC. “Then ayoung man raised his hand and said, 'I think we should invest in a bike company. Gas prices are at an all-timehigh, people can't afford to drive to work, so they'll want to buy bicycles.' It was thoughtful and intelligent and itjust blew me away,” says Mr. Hoeg, who with Ariel Investments LLC Vice Chairman Charles Bobrinskoyfounded the stock-mentoring program under the umbrella of the Big Shoulders Fund, a Chicago-basedorganization that provides financial support to Catholic schools in the neediest areas of Chicago.
“We teach the basic principles on saving and investing,” Mr. Hoeg says. “It opens (students) up to a world theyotherwise wouldn't be exposed to as a career, and it gives fundamental tools they'll need when they get a jobon their own and have to prepare for retirement.”
Armed with research that shows mentoring can reduce youth crime, Chicago executives are sharing theirprofessional expertise with students in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods.
They're part of a national surge of school-based mentorship. “There's been an explosion of kids beingmentored, and there's a corresponding explosion of organizations running those programs,” says DavidShapiro, CEO of Washington-based Mentor: The National Mentoring Partnership, parent of the IllinoisMentoring Partnership. “We're mentoring 3 million kids in America. Ten years ago, it was 300,000.”
Local volunteerism has snowballed, prompting the creation of numerous nonprofits with the sole purpose oftraining mentors. Chicago Public Schools has streamlined the process to get corporate volunteers in front ofstudents.
“There's renewed interest by nonprofits” in the past three years, says Barbara Lumpkin, deputy CEO forexternal affairs and partnerships at CPS, whose office has aimed to simplify the process of connectingmentors with students. The volunteerism, she says, serves a dual purpose: helping students see beyond thesmall world of their neighborhoods and giving businesses an opportunity to beef up their philanthropic efforts.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel beats the drum regularly on business-school partnerships. “I don't care if it's a magnetschool, baccalaureate school, military, charter, parochial,” he says after a recent event to promote a mentoringprogram at a parochial school. “I want educational excellence, and I'll look at anything.”
While enthusiasm is abundant, follow-through sometimes isn't—a reality that would-be mentors have to keepin mind. Nonprofits that don't prepare volunteers adequately can find themselves scrambling for help when amentor drops out midstream.
“We had a female business executive who was very enthusiastic in the beginning and then found that herschedule was taking her out of town,” says Karen Foley, president of Chicago Scholars Foundation, anonprofit that helps high-schoolers prepare for college and counts Mesirow Financial Holdings Inc. CFOKristie Paskvan, former Nuveen Investments CEO Tim Schwertfeger and Freeborn & Peters partner KathrynThomas among its volunteers. “She missed appointments. She wasn't returning the texts sent by the student.
That's a problem because kids get disappointed. They care if you care about them, and that means being withthem.”
John Rowe, former CEO of Exelon Corp., got his training as a mentor by getting in front of a classroom at theRowe Elementary charter school he founded in Noble Square.
“We have a lot of kids who need more adult attention than their families can give. It might be that their father isnowhere to be found or parents don't speak English or sometimes because both parents are working and it'shard to find time to spend with the kids. There are oodles of reasons why any adult attention is a positive thingif it's consistent,” says Mr. Rowe, whose wife, Jeanne, mentors teen girls at the school. “Students from highschool to kindergarten want consistency.”
Consistency also comes from the nonprofits that oversee mentoring. At the Future Founders Foundation, anentrepreneurial career program funded by Groupon Inc. co-founder Brad Keywell, a staff member joins everyvolunteer at a school.
“To build an expertise and to build participation, you need a core group of people to keep it all running. That'swhy funding these organizations is so important,” says longtime mentoring organizer Daniel Bassill, presidentof Tutor/Mentor Institute LLC, a Chicago organization that aggregates information about non-school tutoringand mentoring programs on a searchable website.
Nonprofits focused on mentoring place a high priority on vetting mentors and pairing them with young peoplewith whom they'll have a rapport.
“Mentoring is like dating: You put people together and try to match them up as best as you can. But peopledon't always click,” says Bernadette Sanchez, associate professor in psychology at DePaul University and aresearcher on mentoring. “Maybe the mentee is shy or feeling uncomfortable, or maybe the mentor needs a lotof guidance on how to interact and how to initiate conversation.”
Mentoring programs worth their salt train volunteers on how to communicate with their young charges toalleviate awkward moments that can hurt a relationship.
Another potential friction point: culture clashes. Executives in the field say relatively few black and Latino menvolunteer, for example, which poses challenges for nonprofits trying to introduce young people to mentors ofsimilar racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Ms. Sanchez recalls a mentor who encouraged a student to go out of state for college. “The mentee didn't wantto move far from her family, but the mentor told her she needed to worry about herself, not familyresponsibilities. The mentor was insensitive to this Latina woman's culture and values.”
Sheila Merry, executive director of the Illinois Mentoring Partnership in Chicago, says nonprofits that workclosely with schools to develop programming are the most successful in mentoring.
Junior Achievement of Chicago is the area's largest nonprofit mentoring program. This year, it will work with445,000 Chicago Public Schools students from 21,000 classrooms. Mentors work with students in theclassroom with the teacher on hand.
“For a short amount of time, they can have a huge impact. These kids have a classroom teacher every day, butit becomes more meaningful when an outside volunteer comes in,” says Sandy Daffe, president of JuniorAchievement's Chicago organization, ticking off some of the local executives who volunteer: David Nelms, CEOof Discover Financial Services Inc. (he was a student of the program); Allstate Corp. President CatherineBrune (also incoming board chair for the national Junior Achievement program); and Valerie Van Meter, chieffinancial officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Thomas Klehr, senior vice president at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Chicago, relishes his visits to schools
across the city. He's on track to visit every one of the 42 schools (and counting) in the Future Foundersprogram. But, he acknowledges, his level of involvement is not the norm.
“Sometimes 'different' is scary. You're an adult and you assume the kids don't want you to be there becauseyou're different,” he says. “I'm a white male. They look at me and say, 'I have nothing in common with him.' Butit's not old versus young or black versus white. We have a common interest in entrepreneurship. When theyrealize I have perspective on their project and I want to be there and I'm interested in what they have to say,then any reservations they may have disappear.”
Local volunteerism has snow bal ed, prompting the creation of numerous
nonprofits w ith the sole purpose of training mentors. To coin a phrase, it's a w in-
Brad Keyw el couldn't figure out how to get his foot in the door at Jenner
Elementary. Then he met Derek Ault, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, andthings changed.
Mentoring isn't a casual w alk in the park. Here are tips and tidbits from people
w ho've been in the trenches and know w hat successful mentoring real y looks
Long before he became CEO of Discover Financial Services, David Nelms w as
part of the Junior Achievement program during his junior and senior years ofhigh school.
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