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November 8, 2001 Promotheus pairs students with high-schoolers at risk




by Robert Scalia

At first glance, Zumrat only faintly seemed a student at risk. Her marks were decent, she was highly motivated and she beamed with positivity, but the 15-year-old spoke little French and no English.

She was also extremely shy, leaving administrators at Lavoie High School, in Côte des Neiges, worried that her marks might suffer once she was placed in a regular class.

Prometheus volunteer Tania Ash figures it was their third meeting last winter before her protegé finally opened up to her.

Over the next 10 weeks, Zumrat spoke of her schooling back in Turkmenistan. She spoke of her father wishing she would wear her traditional Muslim headscarf. In moments of awkward silence, they made friendship bracelets.

“She loved the bracelets,” recalled Ash, now studying early childhood education at Concordia. “[They] helped her make friends in class. She was feeling better about herself.”

One in every three high school students isn’t so lucky. The latest statistics reveal that 6,000 students drop out of high school across Quebec every year.

Tackling this challenge has been the Prometheus Project’s goal since 1992. The non-profit organization is now eyeing Concordia, hoping to recruit more volunteer mentors to extend its reach across the city.

“Our students need role models. That’s what mentoring is all about,” explained Ginette Sauvé, the group’s executive director, “and university students, because they have succeeded through high school and CEGEP, make excellent examples of perseverance.”

While successful, Prometheus needs funds, she said. “We are already performing miracles with the little money we have.” This includes paying psychologists for mentor evaluations and training, as well as protégé follow-ups — all without any government funding.

Sauvé sent about 100 mentors into 12 high schools last year, and noted that “we have yet to break up a pair.” She is approaching universities to diversify her pool of mentors, mainly firemen and employees of private donors, like Costco and Air Canada.

Prometheus representatives set up a booth in the Hall Building recently, and have contacted professors and classes. The group has certainly got Rosemary Reilly’s attention.

The professor of applied human science said it may be possible to set up a stage for those of her students who are interested in mentoring, provided they could work in teams, a necessity in the human-relations stream.

“Traditionally, [mentoring] was used to facilitate the growth and development of bright lights. Now, people see it as an effective method for those who have been turned off by education.”

Teachers, parents overburdened

Reilly’s work in nursery and elementary schools has given her insight into what can go wrong in high school. She believes that overburdened teachers and parents sometimes flatten a child’s confidence just by saying the wrong thing. “I have never seen a child come to a learning situation with anything other than enthusiasm and wonder, but these kids are sometimes met with messages like, ‘You’re wrong. You’re stupid. Your answer is different.’”

Student mentor Ash connected with Zumrat by allowing her to help train her speckled Dalmation, and distinguish Turkey from Turkmenistan on a map. The role-playing sessions, conversations with Zumrat’s teachers helped.

Being paired with the right protegé was part of the project’s success, too. Were it not for her four-year sojourn in Morocco, Ash would never have been able to write Zumrat’s name in Arabic and make that special connection.