• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 08th December, 2009

Big Brothers and Big Sisters miss US schools target

A school-based adaptation of the best known and most enduring of US mentoring programs has emerged from its first major evaluation trial with disappointing long-term results.The widely tried and tested form of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America (BBBS) matches mentors with children to promote positive development and aspects of social responsibility. Assessment generally focuses on comparative levels of antisocial behavior, substance abuse and school attendance.A new experimental study of a school-based variation of the BBBS model by researchers at the US Public/Private Ventures program evaluation agency, confirmed anticipated benefits at the end of the first school year.  But by the end of the second, the only statistically significant positive impact was a continuing lower level of school absence. The modern community-based BBBS program was born out of a child rescue initiative inside the New York justice system during the early years of the last century. By 2005 some 440 agencies were serving more than 220,000 young people across the country. The independent agencies delivering the program adhere to very specific implementation standards and criteria, but have some license to adjust the program to the needs of their communities.Unusually, by most contemporary reckoning, the program has been shown to have an impact on a variety of behavioral outcomes, without providing a behavior-specific intervention or targeting any particular risk.Its reputation rests on the value of its rigorous analytical approach to developmental mentoring and the care it takes in providing participants with a role model. Attention focuses on the sensitivity of the mentoring relationship.The Big Brothers Big Sisters program has been given a "proven" rating by the influential Promising Practices Network, based on evidence that its participants were less likely to succumb to alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs, to engage in violent behavior or to experience serious conduct problems. They performed well at grade level and met state curriculum standards. In the community version, a volunteer spends three to five hours a week with the child over the course of at least a year. Goals are set with the family’s agreement. In the newer, school-based variation, all contact between a young person and his or her mentor takes place on school grounds. Inside schools the time commitment is reduced: weekly meetings of one or two hours take place only during the academic school year. But the broad developmental focus remains; there is no academic bias.The high standing of BBBS as a proven model is largely based on an experimental study developed by researchers at Public/Private Ventures in 1995. The latest findings by the same agency carry forward an equivalent study by Senior Policy Researcher Carla Herrera, and her colleagues, which divided a sample of 1,139 young people, who were in grades four to nine at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year. Test sites ranged across Colorado, Ohio, Texas, Arizona and Philadelphia. Surveys were administered to teachers, young people and mentors at three points: the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year, the end of first school year (first follow-up), and during the late fall of the second school year (second follow-up). Results were based on intent-to-treat analysis to examine whether offering an opportunity to be part of the of BBBS program affected student outcomes.Continuous supervision in a closed environment made it possible to test cross-gender matches and also the confidence and usefulness of volunteer student mentors. In the first analysis benefits similar to those found in BBBS community trials were identified. The problem was that they all too quickly faded. By the late fall of the second school year (the second follow-up), only the school attendance outcome was found to be statistically significant.A separate reading of the results suggested that mentoring relationships between young people and adults were more productive than those involving older students as mentors.When the schools study was launched in 2005 Judy Vredenburgh, President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America was optimistic that it would create a "blueprint for action" across her organization’s 470 US agencies. It was to be the lynch pin of a Strategic Growth Plan for serving one million children by the year 2010.See:Herrera, C et al., ““Making a Difference in Schools: The Big Brothers Big Sisters School-Based Mentoring,”” Philadelphia, Pa.: Public/Private Ventures, 2007.  See also:The SMILE that says mentoring too often doesn’t work

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