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Reaching One Child at a Time: MISD REACH Mentor Program

Shane Mauldin|
Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mentoring in McKinney ISD

McKinney, Texas – You don’t have to spend a lot of time around Nancy Cowlishaw to figure out that she has a heart for kids. It’s what inspired her to become an educator 24 years ago, and it’s what motivated her, as the leader of McKinney ISD’s Partners in Education department, to create the REACH mentoring program 14 years ago. Her mission? To help MISD reach one child at a time.

Since its inception, REACH has paired hundreds upon hundreds of MISD students from elementary to high school with a mentor, someone to serve as a listening ear and a guide—to offer encouragement and hope and to hold them accountable for making choices that will lead them to success.

Over the years, Cowlishaw has seen that mentoring contributes to improved grades, fewer discipline referrals, increased attendance, more effective social skills, a rise in self-esteem and a more positive outlook on their education.

“Some of these kids have a lot of holes in their hearts for a lot of different reasons,” Cowlishaw says. “And, our mentors are trying to make deposits and help them see that there is hope and that they can excel in school.”

That they can find success at school is a fact that some students can’t envision until a mentor lights the way.

“We try to be their eyes and help them to see things that maybe they just can’t see right now,” says Cowlishaw.

Currently, MISD has about 288 students with REACH mentors, and Cowlishaw estimates that, over the life of the program, the number of kids served reaches into the thousands. Cowlishaw and her husband, Tom, have certainly been doing their part. Between the two of them, they’ve mentored more than 20 students since the program began.

Mentors meet with a student once a week, typically during lunch, for about 15–20 minutes. That small investment of time has a tremendous impact that starts with the heart.

“Mentors establish a relationship to just help the student understand that one of the most important things they’re doing right now is getting their education, that being successful in school means more opportunities will come,” Cowlishaw says.

The conversations that can happen over a game of Battleship can be life-changing. Here, REACH mentor Troy Baker meets with a student during lunch period.

“But, sometimes, before they can see that, you have to get to their heart first because, [for example], a little girl who’s sad every day is probably not reaching her full potential because of other things that are in her heart—and when you get to share your heart you begin to see improvement in other parts of life.”

Just knowing they have someone in their corner can make a difference. “Thank you for everything you have done for me,” wrote one student in a note to her mentor. “You have been the best mentor for six years. You’ve seen me grow up to be the person I am right now. You helped me to become the better person [and] taught me to be in a better path. Thank you for everything.”

Mentors are in it for the long haul, many working with the same student from elementary or middle school all the way through to graduation.

2018 McKinney North graduate Bradley Harris points out that, even though they didn’t immediately gel, his mentor stayed with him for seven years. “Sixth and seventh grade, it was kind of awkward between us; we didn’t really have much to say. But, once it got to eighth grade and ninth, that’s when it was just like, ‘Ok, this guy is really good for me, and he really wants to help me,’ says Harris. “It shows me that he cares a lot about me and what I’m doing, and he doesn’t want me to fail or get behind everybody else. So, it really motivates me to keep doing and try harder.”

Jessica Pineda is another 2018 North graduate whose mentor helped her see that she could succeed. When she graduated, her focus was on medical school. “It’s a good feeling to know that somebody’s there constantly pushing you. Without her, I don’t even think I’d be going to college,” Pineda says.

Every potential mentor goes through an application process, background check and orientation before they are paired with a student. Cowlishaw is pleased that, at this point in the school year, there are still volunteers calling who want to mentor.

“Normally, by Feb. 1, we’re done with orientations,” she says. “So, that’s good that we still have them coming in.”

Because there are currently around 20 kids waiting for a mentor.

“What we need is someone who is willing to say, ‘You know what? I’ll take the next one on the waiting list,’” Cowlishaw says.

And, who knows? Maybe that’s you.

“My hope from the very beginning of the REACH program has been to change one life at a time,” Cowlishaw says. “Which would hopefully change one family at a time. I’ve run into students who have graduated and moved on, and now they come through and introduce their children to us. And, so I hope that my time spent talking to one student as a mentor will help them give back also—and change generations to come.”

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