East High School mentorship program creates bonds for life

The A+ Angels program has been in the school for 15 years

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For the past 15 years, a group of mentors have been stepping up to guide East High School students through classes and into graduation. Although high school is just four years, many of the mentor-student pairs stay in contact through college and into the rest of their lives.

For Jessica Pearson, who helped found the A+ Angels mentorship program in 2004, it started because she wasn’t quite ready for her son to graduate high school. She and a friend, Karen Press, began looking into ways to give back to East, 1600 City Park Esplanade, during the 2003-2004 school year. The new mentorship program launched that September.

The program is unique to East and George Washington High School in Denver Public Schools, Pearson said.

“East is kind of a flagship high school for DPS, and it has so many wonderful things,” she said. “But if you look at the achievement gap, it’s pretty substantial. That was the inspiration for this.”

Immediately, Pearson and Press began recruiting parents at East as mentors. Many who started with them are still volunteering today.

What started as a more casual program where mentors and students would meet on their own time has now grown into a three-class period program at East. Aimee Ahrens has been helping run the program since 2008 as the supervising teacher.

Students meet with their mentors once a week during a scheduled block class for 1 1/2 hours. During the rest of the week, the classes go over different school subjects and math tutoring at East.

“We start with academics because that’s the easy part,” Ahrens joked.

But in reality, pairing with a student is not always easy. Sometimes, mentors and students just don’t get along. Sometimes, students will skip meetings. But Ahrens notes that the best thing a mentor can do is to continue to show up and show that he or she cares.

“That’s something I have to tell the mentors all the time is you can’t take it personally. They’re teenagers,” she said. “They want someone to show up and show interest in them.”

Mentors like Philip Greenberg have stayed in touch with every student they’ve ever worked with. Greenberg started in 2008 after he retired as an architect.

“My philosophy is you have to meet this kids where they’re at,” he said.

For Greenberg, all the students he has mentored came from a Spanish-speaking family. Since he speaks Spanish, he’s been able to connect with students, as well as their parents. With some of his mentees, such as his current student, he’s also noticed that they need to catch up on English comprehension.

“It affects everything he does when he walks into school,” Greenberg said. “So my goal is not to focus on math, focus on English — focus on just understanding comprehension and some of these other things will come into play.”

As students continue into high school, the relationship often changes, Pearson said. What started as a person helping a student with academics becomes a more personal relationship. Mentors sometimes give life advice or help students get jobs. Many also help the student in their college or post-high school search.

Ahrens fell in love with the program as she watched those relationships blossom.

“Ultimately, it’s good for kids and for the adult volunteers that do it. It’s worthwhile,” Ahrens said. “It opens so many doors for these kids.”

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