New Haven sixth graders visit Yale for the first time with their undergraduate mentors

New Haven sixth graders and their undergraduate mentors at Yale.
(Photos courtesy of Dwight Hall)

They live 15 minutes from the center of campus, and they’d never — not once — been to Yale,” said Marquita Taylor, Ph.D., who oversees the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program (J-Z AMP) in her role at Dwight Hall, Yale’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice.

Taylor was speaking of the 34 New Haven middle school students who are mentees in J-Z AMP this year and of this current group set out to bridge the town-gown divide. On April 13, J-Z AMP™’s Yale College sophomore mentors welcomed their sixth-grade mentees to Yale’s campus for the first annual J-Z AMP campus tour.

Following a unique cohort-based structure, J-Z AMP pairs rising sophomores from three urban universities in Connecticut — Sacred Heart University, Trinity College, and Yale — with two rising sixth-grade students in their respective school districts of Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven, and expects a three-year commitment from both mentors and mentees. Mentors support their mentees through middle school, beginning to end, with the intention of setting up their students for a successful high school experience. Dwight Hall’s online application for Yale sophomores puts the charge to prospective mentors this way: “Commit to helping New Haven kids stay in school.”

In my ideal world,” Taylor explained, “I would want each of our students to finish eighth grade and go to high school and graduate and go to college and finish college, and then be able to look back and say, ‘I didn't give up because there were people who pushed me and believed in me and told me that I belong in college and that I could do it. People really spent the time to foster that growth in me.’ For me, that would be like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

For New Haven middle schools and Yale, J-Z AMP is in its 13th year of partnership, but it has been active in Bridgeport and Hartford since 2001. J-Z AMP was established in 2000 when then Connecticut State Representative Reginald Jones and his school board colleague and long-time friend, John Zimmermann, were seeking an effective means “to curb inner-city dropout rates,” which had by that time (the 2001-2002 academic year) become as high as 31% in the Bridgeport School District and 23% in Hartford.

When the first cohort of mentees from Bridgeport and Hartford graduated high school in 2008, J-Z AMP saw an 85% high school graduation rate amongst its participants, significantly higher than Bridgeport and Hartford’s respective overall graduation rates of 69% and 79% that year. Following Sacred Heart and Trinity College, Yale’s branch of J-Z AMP, administrated through Dwight Hall, launched in 2005 as a partnership with Wexler-Grant Community School, later adding Celentano Museum Academy School to its scope. For the 2017-2018 academic year, this current cohort includes 17 Yale sophomore mentors and 34 sixth-grade mentees.

To enrich and support

Mentors and mentees meet twice a week after school during the school year, but J-Z AMPalso takes educational field trips and plans enrichment activities for the mentees. Taylor explained that she and J-Z AMPmentors serve as advocates for students in the classroom, too, where the mentors can alert teachers and administrators to either personal challenges their students are facing outside the classroom or, simply, the lack of challenge inside the classroom.

New Haven middle school students with mentors in a Yale courtyard.

Earlier this year, Taylor struck up a conversation with a J-Z AMPmentee who was in the midst of reading a book for class but looking rather uninterested. She asked him what the book was about, and the sixth grader was effortlessly able to articulate the subject, characters, and themes of the story — but without any enthusiasm for the subject. When Taylor pointed out his lack of interest, the mentee said, “This book is too easy for me, and I’m bored.” Taylor asked him what he was interested in, and the sixth grader said he enjoyed autobiographies.

We’re J-Z AMP. We can get you books!” Taylor told the mentee, adding that he could take the books home and keep them. “He was so excited about that,” she said.

It's these small things that are oftentimes overlooked in the school system because of all the other students and all the other issues going on at the school,” added Taylor. “This student was misbehaving in class because he was bored — not because he couldn't do the work and not because he's a bad kid … This student is extremely bright. He was just bored.”

J-Z AMPmentees also focus on enrichment opportunities for their mentees outside of the classroom, according to Taylor.

A couple of our amazing mentors want to be doctors,” she explains, “so they've been able to teach their mentees about the human body or about cells, what they do and look like. These are great opportunities that expose the mentees to a career or field that they weren't interested in before, probably because they didn’t know much about it. I think that is amazing and probably my favorite thing all semester.”

J-Z AMPis much more than a tutoring and enrichment program: It’s a support system comprised of caring individuals who consider each middle schooler’s wellbeing holistically, according to its mentors.

One of the most rewarding parts of J-Z AMP is really being able to connect with the students,” said Chevonne Parker ’20, a current mentor. “My mentee felt that he could open up to me about problems at home and at school as well as play me one-on-one in basketball. I love that the structure of the program allows me to be a consistent face in the life of my mentees, so they know that they can always come to me if they need help. Though I have really enjoyed working with the students in the classroom setting, encouraging them to do their homework and continue learning, I have loved getting to know each of the students on a more personal level. While I taught my mentee math and language arts, he taught me so many things about basketball and life in general. Though we only see each other twice a week, my mentee and I have built a really great bond.”

This bond has allowed Parker to help her mentee when he is grappling with non-academic issues. “One day my mentee was having a problem with a girl at school,” said Parker. “All of his teachers noticed a change in his behavior, but he just wouldn’t tell them what had happened. When it came time for J-Z AMP, we started talking about Michael Jordan, and he eventually told me what was going on.”  

Zalma Vivanco ’20, current J-Z AMP co-coordinator and mentor, concurred: “My favorite part about being involved in J-Z AMP is definitely getting to spend time with my mentees. From bonding over Harry Potter and ‘fangirling’ over the X-Men series to working through math logic problems together, the relationships I’ve formed with my mentees is incredibly fulfilling!”

J-Z AMP is far beyond going and mentoring each student for five or six hours a week,” said Taylor. “It's a real connection. It's really meeting a need of these students, being their person. Because in some cases they feel like they can't talk to anybody about their problems. Oftentimes, it’s just that they aren't being listened to or they’re being misunderstood, so I encourage our Yale mentors and coordinators to show that we are there for the students in that capacity, too — to be their allies.”

That’s why they toured Yale

J-Z AMP mentors visit their mentees twice weekly at the Celentano and Wexler-Grant schools but were eager to welcome the younger students to Yale for the first time.

I think the trip to Yale really impacted the mentees’ understanding of Yale,” Parker said. “After the field trip, I think they saw Yale not as an impermeable ‘bubble’ reserved for the rich and privileged, but rather an integral yet accessible part of their community.”

An additional aim was to encourage mentees to see Yale as a potential college choice. “I'm going to say 98% of our students are students of color. They are students who receive free and/or reduced lunch, and come from low-income families,” said Taylor. “For me, as a person of color, being exposed to programs on college campuses really solidified my desire to go to college. It showed me that this is what it's like, that this is what I could expect. That, yes, I belong here. So that is a major piece of J-Z AMP for me: ensuring that these students of color know they belong here, too.”

The students ate lunch in Ezra Stiles’ dining hall, checked out Sterling Memorial Library, and explored Silliman College. In short, they got to see where their mentors eat, study, and sleep. 

New Haven middle schhol students eating at the Ezra Stiles dining hall at Yale

I was very pleasantly surprised by their interest in Yale's libraries!” Vivanco recalled. “We took an official Yale tour, and the students could not stop asking our tour guide questions about how many and what kinds of books Yale has. They were absolutely astounded when we went into Sterling, and they found out that it holds over four million books!”

Like we expected, all of the students were excited to eat in the dining halls, play in the residential college basements, and pretend to be a college student for the day,” said Parker, “But what really surprised me was their desire to learn more about the academics. I think the field trip to Yale helped to encourage the students to pursue higher education. One of students anxiously wanted to go into the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and see all of the books. Another student wanted to know more about the types of majors and how she could afford to go to college. The students really loved coming to Yale, and we plan to make it an annual trip to continue exposing the students to life in college.”

Vivanco added, “I believe that making this a regular experience will not only improve the relationship between the mentors and mentees but familiarize the mentees with Yale to the point that they start to see themselves attending the university one day.”

The mentees also received special gifts from Dwight Hall at the end of the day. One of those gifts was “words of encouragement,” written for and about each individual student.

I think it's important that all students, regardless of color, know that there are people there, rooting for their success,” said Taylor. “People telling them to keep up the great work.” She noted that this kind of positive affirmation — especially around academics – is something that some of the mentees have not often had in their lives.

The first J-Z AMP™ field trip to Yale campus was a learning experience for the mentors, too. Parker reflected, “As Yale students and residents of New Haven, we have a responsibility to give back to the surrounding area. We are not exempt from the challenges and issues facing the city just because we live behind Yale’s walls.”

J-Z AMP at Dwight Hall will be growing in fall 2018, adding a second cohort of incoming sixth- grade mentees and rising Yale sophomore mentors for the first time in its history. Previously, new groups of mentors and mentees were added every three years only.

It’s important to grow programs when they are doing well and having such a major impact,” said Taylor.

More information about the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program at Yale is available online at Dwight Hall’s webpage.

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Kendall Teare: kendall.teare@yale.edu,