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Rams' Mikell Leads United Way's Pursuit of Student Mentors

Posted Nov 18, 2012

When St. Louis Rams safety Quintin Mikell took the stage at Soldan International High School on Tuesday, all eyes from the student body were glued to him as he shared his message: do not be afraid to seek out help with schoolwork if, and when, you need it. Shortly thereafter, in a more intimate setting, all eyes were once again glued on Mikell, this time as he attempted to complete a series of algebraic equations in math class.

“I love the fact that Quintin was sitting (in class), doing the math problems,” Cheryl Polk, United Way executive vice president and chief strategy and engagement officer said. “The students could see that he’s not just blowing smoke. To see the expressions on some of the students’ faces, it was really priceless.”

Mikell was not at Soldan to relive the days of fractions, polynomials and solving for “X.” Instead, his role was to promote Education Express, a program started by the United Way to offer help and support to students by pairing them with mentors, tutors, homework helpers or reading partners. He and Olympic Gold and Silver Medalist Dawn Harper served as the ambassadors of the program.

The United Way initiated a soft launch of the program last year by talking to people about volunteering on a one-on-one basis. Tuesday’s pep rally was the first public piece promoting Education Express. And the message about volunteer opportunities is just beginning to spread. According to Polk, the United Way hopes to have 2,000 additional people working in schools in the St. Louis region by 2014.

“We’re trying to expose the children to people that have different careers, careers or levels of experience so that wherever the student is coming from, we can connect someone to them,” Polk said.

Soldan represented a good jumping-off point for a number of reasons. It is one of 15 high schools in the St. Louis Public High Schools district and provides easy access for most people. But one of the biggest draws, Polk said, was the diversity of the school.

“Not only are they teaching students on an international basis, but there’s representation from students around the country or from different nationalities,” she said. “We want to make sure we can represent diversity and that we’re challenging students to think more broadly and think globally as they learn.”

Dr. Thomas Cason, principal of Soldan International High School, has seen the learning institution rise over the years. He is particularly proud of the fact that Soldan was named as a “Best High School” in Missouri by U.S. News and World Report. Whether through athletics or academics, the school has achieved much success in recent years.

“It seems like when great things are happening at school and schools are improving, you get the activities and partnerships like we did with the Rams. And we’re very proud of that,” Cason said.

In order to maintain and achieve that success, Soldan has put in the effort. The school tracks all its students, including athletes by looking at grades on progress reports. Three days a week, Soldan offers tutoring classes for its students – communication arts on Monday, science and social studies on Tuesday and math on Wednesday. The tutoring sessions are run by the very teachers that lead the classes, meaning there is no disconnect for the students when it comes to the information.

In addition, Soldan has partnered with Washington University and St. Louis University for tutoring programs as well. Students from St. Louis University make their way to the high school once the regular school day has ended to offer any help Soldan students might be seeking. The partnership with Washington University is run through the law school. These law students assist in the classroom and run mock trial, a program that culminates with a visit to the civil courts building to look at real court cases.

“When children are educated, they become knowledgeable adults,” Polk said. “When they become knowledgeable adults, they have options. And when they options, they can make good choices."

The purpose of these programs, and what Education Express is trying to accomplish, is to offer students the support they need in the classroom. While the pep rally encouraged students to work hard and stay in school, it also served to encourage parents, teachers and other adult role models to get involved with Education Express and serve as a mentor. As Polk said, the United Way wanted to cast a wide net to bring attention to the program and jumpstart the support needed by schools and other agencies.

Mikell was just the presence to do that. He not only explained to the students the importance of a good education, but he was also able to back it up with his performance in the classroom.

“Sometimes, it’s just that one little thing that will spark something in a student to get them to say, ‘Hey, this guy came to our class, and he knew this (stuff),’” Polk said.

And the inspiration he provided to the students was not lost upon the educators.

“To have an actual professional athlete come into your school and give the students words of wisdom and actually sit in a classroom and participate with the instructional process, that’s very valuable,” Cason said. “It made a real positive impact on the kids, and we’ll forever remember that.”

To learn more about Education Express and find out how you can become a volunteer, visit www.stl.unitedway.org/EducationExpress.

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