04/06/2011 05:25 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

Mentors Can Make a Difference in a Child's Education

We are at a critical juncture in our nation's educational system. It's rare to pick up a newspaper today without seeing stories of school closings or massive budget cuts. The future of our children's education is currently a big question mark, but we can't just wait around for something to be done about it. While the debate continues about how to reform our education system, a damaging achievement gap -- the disparity amongst children from low-income families in under-resourced communities and their more affluent counterparts -- continues to persist and widen in our schools.

The achievement gap is more than poor grades; it often puts kids at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers and can set them up for confidence and self-esteem struggles throughout life. While the classroom is obviously important to every child's learning abilities, the achievement gap cannot be reduced in the school day alone. At BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), we believe one of the most effective, proven methods in combating the achievement gap is out-of-school learning. Summer learning and after-school programs, in particular, have made a significant difference in a student's ability to improve academically, particularly children attending schools in under-resourced communities. We also understand that these types of services aren't available to everyone. However, accessing a mentor is another one of several alternatives that can be a powerful tool to building a child's self-esteem and bolstering their academic achievements.

If you don't know where to begin looking for a mentor for your child, you can start with a mirror. It should go without saying that parents need to take an active role in their child's education, but now it's more important than ever to be a positive role model for your child as well to inspire them to learn and be creative. By not communicating with your kids, they run the risk of struggling in school with grades and behavioral problems. Our kids look up to us as parents, and it's our job to set the bar.

However, special circumstances may prevent some parents from being able to provide appropriate time to both parenting and mentoring their child. Therefore, mentors can also be found in teachers, relatives, neighbors, older siblings or cousins, and volunteers. They offer the guidance, advice and support that not only helps improve a child's self-esteem, but has also proven to increase their school attendance, grades, and their attitude towards learning. Parents can even sign their kids up with an organization such as Big Brothers Big Sisters or Mentors Inc. which match your child with a mentor. For children participating in summer learning and after-school programs, a mentor can even help enhance the learning experience.

Children especially between the ages of nine and 15 are at a tipping point when it comes to education. It's typically between these ages where disengagement in school occurs. However, evidence suggests mentors are extremely effective in keeping kids on the right track. A Public/Private Ventures evaluation of Big Brother Big Sisters programs showed that children with mentors are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school. Other studies found that mentoring leads to reduced levels of absenteeism and behavioral problems. MENTOR, a national mentoring partnership, recognizes nearly 18 million young Americans who need or want mentoring, but only three million currently have access to one. That leaves a lot of at-risk youth whose lives can be turned around with the help of just one person.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes; practically anyone who's willing can serve as one. As more resources are taken away from our schools, their role becomes more crucial to a child's learning and self-esteem. It may take years for true education reform, and even longer to start seeing results. The longer we put education on hold, the greater the achievement gap will grow. Don't make a wrong turn; seek out a mentor and help your child find the right path.