Big Brothers Big Sisters Helps Education Efforts in STL Public Schools

Many St. Louis residents criticize the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS), but Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri (BBBS) is celebrating them.

In 2007 the state of Missouri turned the SLPS board over to a three-member Special Administrative Board in an effort to improve poor test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. One year earlier, BBBS made their own efforts to improve education by implementing a new program called the ABC Education Initiative.

Mentoring and Education Hand in Hand

Though BBBS is traditionally a mentoring program, its mission has always included a commitment to “create educated citizens.”

The program matches “Bigs” into mentoring relationships with “Littles,” focusing especially on children with low grades, poor behavior or school attendance, and incarcerated parents.

With the ABC Initiative, BBBS opened offices in five St. Louis Public Schools, including Dunbar Elementary on North Garrison and Sheridan in North St. Louis.

Dunbar Elementary is one of five schools in the St. Louis Public School district participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters' ABC Education Initiative.

Dunbar is classified as a turn-around school, meaning it hasn’t met test score standards in over four years. BBBS hopes to see these improve as a result of their mentoring relationships.

Though Bigs are not tutors, they place a significant focus on their Littles’ education. They support their Littles by reading or playing educational games with them. More than anything, Bigs encourage and motivate Littles.

Chris Jones, the site coordinator at Dunbar, has worked for the organization for three years. A Big herself, she explained that, “Our belief is that the relationship between a Big and a Little will improve that Little’s life.”

A Reason to Celebrate

Historically, BBBS has focused its efforts on students who needed high intervention. With the ABC initiative, they spread their focus across three areas:

Fourth-grader Fontavia plays "Sorry" with her Big Sister, Heather Desmond in the Big Brothers Big Sisters room at Dunbar Elementary Tuesday, March 4, 2011.

  • Students who need intervention
  • Students who are succeeding
  • Students to celebrate

“There is a lot in the public schools to celebrate,” said Jones, “This must be celebrated, noted and made known.”

Through the ABC initiative, BBBS designed several interventions including educational activities, incentives, and individual tutoring. They also began recognizing and rewarding Littles for high grades and attendance.

Significant Challenges

While the Special Board and BBBS have brought several improvements, the SLPSs still face significant challenges.

Jones outlined three major challenges:

  • High teacher turnover rates deprive students of consistency and stability
  • Lack of resources limit the teachers’ ability to meet the needs of each student
  • Parental involvement

“Some parents have had difficult experiences with school,” said Jones, and BBBS wants to help them as well. They believe that the “team” established between Bigs, parents, teachers, and the BBBS staff assists parents while helping to ensure their children do not have a similarly negative experience with education.

“At some point there has to be a mega intervention, “said Jones, “and BBBS is trying to do their part.”

A Match is Made

Six weeks ago, BBBS matched 4th grader Fontavia to her new Big Sister, Heather Desmond. “I don’t get to hang out with my (biological) big sister a lot,” said Fontavia, “and I wanted to have more fun.”

Fontavia and Heather talk while playing "Sorry" at Dunbar Elementary Tuesday, March 1, 2011.

Desmond became interested in becoming a Big Sister after meeting a Little at a different school. She interviewed with BBBS who matched her with Fontavia.

“It’s a really rewarding experience,” said Desmond, “and I think that we’re going to be friends for a long time. I want to see her grow up. And hopefully she can teach me a few things.”

BBBS currently has over 1,000 students waiting to be matched and is looking for more people to become Bigs.

“This is our community,” said Jones, “This is the future work force. When you get old, they’ll be making everything run. We have to get invested in our whole community.”


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