Ready to Learn Mentor Program Makes Progress at Pittsburgh Milliones UPrep

Issue Date: 
September 19, 2016

It used to be nothing for Daqwan Lee to do only a portion of his homework and call it a day. But since joining a tutoring and mentoring program begun by the University of Pittsburgh, the high school junior has been intentional about completing all of his assignments—and he has the better grades to show for it.

Lee, 16, is a student at Pittsburgh Milliones, University Preparatory School in the Hill District and a participant in Pitt’s groundbreaking Ready to Learn tutoring and mentoring program. “Now,” says the teenager during one of the mentoring program’s recent after-school sessions, “I like to make sure I get things done.”

Having participated in Ready to Learn since it began in 2014, Lee has made significant academic progress.

H. Richard Milner IV“We’ve had some solid success,” says the Ready to Learn program’s creator, H. Richard Milner IV, director of Pitt’s Center for Urban Education and the Helen Faison Endowed Chair of Urban Education in the School of Education. “From a research perspective, we’ve seen both quantitative gains in grades and test scores and qualitative evidence that the program is impacting attendance and participation. So, in those ways, it’s contributing to the success of students.”

Ready to Learn is a year-round initiative created by the Center for Urban Education. The program also provides stipends to the participating 6th-12th grade students and to Pitt undergraduates—between 12 and 16 of them—each of whom works two days a week with two Milliones UPrep students for after-school tutoring and mentoring. The college students begin mentoring during their sophomore year at Pitt, and they tutor the students as they advance from middle to high school.

Mentors must attend mathematics and English language arts with their Milliones UPrep mentees during school hours. The Pitt students must also attend training sessions each semester. Both requirements are intended to enhance UPrep participants’ academic achievement and social skills. One of the program’s goals is to foster success through building strong relationships: The 24 middle school and high school participants are encouraged to remain with the same mentors.

The program includes guest speakers, social activities, field trips, a capstone project, and a summer academy from May through July to support student academic success. The summer academy is housed on Pitt’s Oakland campus in Posvar Hall and at the Falk School, both a short distance from Milliones UPrep. The Ready to Learn program is funded by the Heinz Endowments, Pitt alumni Carol and Gene McGrevin, Renée and Richard Goldman, and Robert T. and Judith A. Law, and more than 125 donors who contributed through the online Ready to Learn EngagePitt campaign.

“What makes this program different is an explicit focus on issues of equity, social justice, and a very strong link between empirical research and the program design,” says Milner.

“I wanted to be able to provide, based on empirical evidence, a program that supports students in math, English language arts, and social skill development. In urban education, most of the challenges that students face are those where adults are under-serving them. Students succeed in urban environments when mechanisms are in place to support them.”

Michelle Nkumsah, a Pitt senior from Townsend, Del., joined the Ready to Learn program as a mentor in October 2014.

“This program is beneficial to the kids because it exposes them to a lot of options that they may not be privy to,” such as various college majors and career fields, says Nkumsah.

The high school students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program. Nkumsah says her experience as a mentor reinforced her decision to go into macro-level social work with an emphasis on policy and administration.

Pitt junior Michelle Desjardins, who wants a career working with urban students, says mentoring in the program helped her decide to become a middle school teacher. The English major from Union, N.J., says the students she mentors are talking more often and more clearly about their futures beyond high school.

“It’s a great opportunity for the high school students to be linked with college-age students to see what it’s like in college,” says Desjardins.

High school students often deal with adult issues, and mentors are trained to be thoughtful about their interactions with the students and to empower them with skills to seek their own resources, says Abiola Farinde-Wu, Ready to Learn program manager and a visiting assistant professor in Pitt’s Center for Urban Education

“As an educator, I have witnessed thriving urban schools with responsive and supportive administrations; high-quality, effective, and committed teachers; and students who are actively engaged in their own learning,” Farinde-Wu says. “In contrast, I have also observed urban schools that operate in a state of continual chaos—and are understaffed and under-resourced. In these settings, meaningful teaching and learning seldom occur. Rather, both teachers and students are often going through the motions.”

Lori Delale-O’Connor, Ready to Learn’s associate director of research and development and a research assistant professor at the Center for Urban Education, says the program has received favorable feedback from students and their parents, and from the school and the district. “Some of what we’re learning from our data will inform what we do in teacher education at Pitt, and especially how we revise the program to better meet the needs of students.”

Ready to Learn expanded this fall into Miller African-Centered Academy, a Hill District school for students in pre-K through 5th grade. 

While acknowledging there is more to do, Milner says he is pleased with Ready to Learn’s progress and impact so far. But the Center for Urban Education director thinks big, and his goals are broad. His hopes for the future are that “the entire educational system is transformed to meet the needs of every student in our district.”