Mentor program continues mission through pandemic

By Andrew Goldstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 4, 2020

When schools closed in March as the state began its efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, Christopher Darby sent text messages to check in on the students he mentors at Woodland Hills High School. 

But in recent weeks, the students have started to reach out to Mr. Darby to ask how he was doing.   

Those text messages represent the relationships that Mr. Darby has built with students over the past year in his work through the Heinz Fellows mentorship program at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education.

“I know for a fact, being in education, that trust is the most valuable asset that any educator can have,” Mr. Darby said Monday in a phone interview. “When I see those text messages I get a big smile because I know I’m able to build, I’m able to grow off of this because these individuals are engaged and they’re committed now.” 

Mr. Darby, 29, is one of 14 mentors in the program who were dispersed throughout urban elementary, middle and high schools in southwestern Pennsylvania. Mentors help students with issues that go beyond the classroom, such as difficulties at home or planning for the future. 

While the pandemic has changed many aspects of schooling, the goal of the program remains the same.

T. Elon Dancy, director of the Center for Urban Education, said the Heinz Fellows mentorship program was designed to examine areas for change and advancement in education equity. That involves tutoring and mentoring, but also supporting teachers and thinking critically about teaching in ways that are just, equitable and culturally responsive.

The pandemic’s impact on school makes the program even more vital, according to Mr. Dancy. 

“In many ways the pandemic has exacerbated the equity issues that we already experience in education,” Mr. Dancy said. “The connection between schools and students have been deeply compromised, and the Heinz Fellows is disrupting that with much needed connection through tutoring and mentoring.” 

Mr. Darby works with a dozen students from ninth to 12th grade, including seniors who are preparing to graduate and begin their post-secondary lives.

For those going to college, he has helped with applications and filling out student loan forms. He has also encouraged students to make calls themselves to find information.

Joi Burleigh, 18, a Woodland Hills senior, said Mr. Darby has been an “older-brother figure” kept her focused on her schoolwork but could still have fun. She said he helped her write essays for English class and apply to colleges.

“He was like the older brother who would keep you in line but also is very playful,” she said. “He would always joke around, but when it came to business, we all had to have our grades up, our work had to be done to be in his office. He never played around with our grades.”  

Joi, who received scholarship offers to play basketball at Millersville University and Seton Hill University, said she will soon decide which school she will attend.

But Mr. Darby is working to help her finish the school year strong. Joi said she is in touch with him at least a couple of times per week, and they have a Zoom conversation every Wednesday.

Mr. Darby said he knows firsthand that frequent communication is important right now.

“I do know and understand that this is not a normal situation, but I also didn’t want them to feel like they were abandoned and didn’t have anyone to talk to during this time,” Mr. Darby said. “I’m also a student at the University of Pittsburgh. When everything switched, I was also a student and kind of understood the implications and what was going on within education.”