Opinion: High school students need homeroom champions

Pete Ruppert

Ask any successful adult — business leader, doctor, politician or philanthropist — what inspired them when they were young and they will almost always mention at least one adult who cared deeply about them and went above and beyond to help them achieve their dreams.

Now, ask a high school student today the same question. There is a good chance you will be met with stunned silence.

In the United States, many high school students are in desperate need of champions who know them well and who care deeply about their success.

odd Darnell, right, 12, talks with mentor Josh Pelt, left, 25, both of Detroit. Youth leaders from the Neighborhood Service Organization host their annual Male Empowerment Breakfast, Feb. 12, 2016, in the library at Durfee Middle School.

The need for emotional and social support is clear. In 2017, researchers from the American Academy for Pediatrics found the number of children and adolescents admitted to children's hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm had more than doubled in less than 10 years. In 2016, Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health released an annual report finding that 61% of college students across the country had reported anxiety as one of their major health concerns.

Student advocates can have a huge impact on student success. Big Brothers Big Sisters found that middle-school aged mentees in a one-on-one mentoring relationship outperform their unmatched counterparts in every area measured.

At Fusion Academy, a national family of one-to-one schools, our teacher-mentor model creates an environment where teachers serve as champions for their students’ success. A focus on the whole child is the foundation of the transformational social, emotional and academic success we have seen in students at our schools across the country.

What if our schools focused as much on mentoring as they did on teaching?

More and more public and private schools are incorporating lower teacher-to-student ratios and the concept or social and emotional learning. These models allow for deeper relationships and caring within the school community, and are having a real impact on many students across the country.

I propose another idea: Give every teacher the time and opportunity to be a consistent, day-to-day mentor for the same 30 students throughout their four years of high school.

Imagine a twice daily, homeroom-like setting where teachers would be given time to really get to know and work with their 30 students for four consecutive years.

Montana Howard, left, 16, program manager Debralyn Woodberry-Shaw, Evan Nevels, 15, and mentor Jomari Peterson work on building websites for their products.

With homeroom champions, core teachers could get to know their students’ unique challenges and could provide consistent, positive adult mentorship that could help students succeed and overcome powerful, negative outside influences that hinder school success — such as broken homes, absent parents or poverty.

Many will argue that creating two homeroom-style classes per day will deplete the needed opportunities for instruction. Having spent more than 20 years in the education industry, I, too, used to believe that instructional time on task — the amount of time a student spends actively engaged in learning — and time in the classroom, were the only ways to realize student success.

I now realize that this line of thinking fails our students on a fundamental level.

There is an old adage that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  If we are unable to help all students become successful as individuals first, there is no amount of time on academic tasks that can guarantee their school or life success.  

We must find a way to better integrate teachers into the role of mentors across the education spectrum. Homeroom champions may be a solution.

Pete Ruppert is a 20-year veteran in the education industry and a Harvard Business School graduate. He has served as a public school board member in his local community for five years. He lives in East Grand Rapids