The graduation rate from Hugh M. Cummings High School in Burlington, North Carolina is 67 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report. Located in the eastern part of the city, its racial and socioeconomic status differentiates it from all six other high schools in the area.
“A lot of these kids come to school and both their parents work maybe multiple jobs,” Elon University Senior and Elon Volunteers! Cummings High School Links Program Coordinator Hanna Smith-Benjamin says, “and so they come to school to come to school and hang out.”
The students rely on their teachers for an education, but don’t have the help or resources they need to keep pursuing their education, Smith-Benjamin says.
It’s a title-one school, meaning there is a high percentage of students who get free or reduced lunch. The minority enrollment is 93 percent, U.S. News and World Report says.
“They’re not always being pushed for college, but to pass their classes and to come to school,” Smith-Benjamin says.
Smith-Benjamin has a difficult task as a college senior from Arlington, Virginia. She’s mentoring about 20 10th grade English students.
“It’s kind of a rambunctious class. They’re very outgoing and loud,” Smith-Benjamin says.
She provides more than homework help, inquiring about their social problems too.
Two freshmen were recruited at Elon’s fall organization fair and they began volunteering on October 4.
“It’s been kind of a hard links project because I think a lot of people are scared of high schoolers,” Smith-Benjamin says.
She says it is “a little discouraging” to have low numbers of recruits
“It is hard to get more volunteers at Cummings rather than organizations like Boys and Girls Club or Positive Attitude Youth Center (PAYCE) because they work with younger kids…and so it’s little less intimidating and a little easier to work with them,” Smith-Benjamin says.
Because of the close ages, Smith-Benjamin says Cummings is a “hard community partner” to bring Elon students in. And volunteers have to be willing to be open-minded.
“Most of these kids aren’t at the levels that they should be. Or at the level that their grade is and even in this 10th grade English class they’re doing drastically different things than I was,” Smith-Benjamin says.
They are working on their grammar, finding claims, and reading short stories, not perfecting sentence structure and reading more complex literature like Smith-Benjamin had at her public high school in Arlington, Virginia.
The big goal is for these students is to pass their standardized testing at the end of the year. Smith-Benjamin says that’s why Elon students play a crucial part in mentoring these students, pushing them to succeed in their academics.
“I want to do everything I can, but I am just one person.”
Smith-Benjamin sees low volunteer recruitment being directly impacted by race and socioeconomic status.
“There’s 100 percent a race divide. And it’s a very different racial background at Cummings than it is at Elon,” Smith-Benjamin says, “You just have to look at these students as students.”
Heightening the retention rate is also hard to maintain because Elon students are always changing their schedules. But The Cinderella Project is another EV! program that has larger success rates for keeping Elon students engaged because they have one workshop in the spring.
Girls picking out prom dresses, Photo: Caroline Dean
Elon mentors strategizing dress shape and style for mentees, Photo: Caroline Dean
Mentees picking out jewelry to complete their look for prom, Photo: Caroline Dean
Cummings High School student getting her makeup done for free, Photo: Caroline Dean
It connects the young women at Cummings High School with Elon student volunteers. The Cinderella Project involves Elon students mentoring high school juniors and seniors on the day of their prom.
“Mentoring for our program specifically is oriented toward young women empowerment,” Caroline Dean, The Cinderella Project Conference Coordinator says, “And it’s seeing that through women who have already been through the experiences that you’ve been through so they can help guide you through the difficulties of high school.”
Elon students help the high schoolers pick out dresses, jewelry and shoes and find beauticians to do their hair and makeup for free at Elon. The volunteers provide transportation to campus and lead workshops on prom safety and bring in SPARKS for peer education. And there’s even an a cappella performance.
Spring 2016 Cummings High School mentee with fairy godmother before prom, Photo: Caroline Dean
“I’ve seen the relationships and bonds come from this. And for me it’s pretty phenomenal to see the community coming in to our community and them interacting so fluidly,” Dean says.
Contrasting Cummings High School links mentoring program with The Cinderella Project, the latter had 70 student volunteers show up to their first meeting this fall. Dean says about 80 percent of those students are freshmen. Both her and Smith-Benjamin are worried about volunteer retention.
“Where the problem comes in, if the university student starts down that path [volunteering] and stops for one reason or another. …or does it for one semester and doesn’t return the next semester,” Mary Morrison, Director of Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement says.
This barrier is difficult to fix in Smith-Benjamin’s eyes, but she fosters her relationships, no matter how the number.
“It’s a deeper relationship with a student that is more holistic. You’re not just thinking about one aspect. You really want to get to know the student that you’re mentoring in a holistic fashion,” Mary Morrison says.
Ally Nylen, Elon Volunteers!, Executive Director of Communication Education says the relationship Elon and Burlington shares at Cummings High School is beneficial for both communities.
“They anticipate Elon students coming out and volunteering. As well as we invite them on to campus for other events or to really strengthen that partnership,” Ally Nylen says.
Mentoring for Nylen is seen as a mutual benefitting partnership, one that both Smith-Benjamin and Dean have in distinct capacities.
She says Boys and Girls Club sees “a lot of volunteers,” and agrees with Smith-Benjamin thinking the age of the students impacts how many Elon student volunteers will help Cummings students.
“I think there is a struggle in wanting to get people to continuously volunteer,” Nylen says.
Mutual long-lasting partnerships are what all the volunteers and leaders are looking for. But for now there is no long-term solution to this problem.
Nylen says she sees that there is interest for people to get involved in organizations, but longterm commitment is hard especially since Elon’s student body is actively involved in many organizations. For now, all leaders see impactful change in their mentees and in themselves.
“I’m not afraid anymore to go out into our community. I feel very empowered getting to know these young women and knowing that they will be the young women that they continue to develop and love on this community. And in some way I’ve been a part of that,” Dean says.