East High’s A+ Angels and the Lawyers Who Mentor Them
by Jeff Pearson
It’s 7:30 a.m. Most of the 2,000 kids at Denver’s East High School, home of the Angels, have taken seats in their first-period classes. In the first-period study hall supervised by Jamie Laurie, an East High and Brown University grad, a lively discussion is underway about yesterday’s May Day immigration reform marches and rallies. The students in Mr. Laurie’s room aren’t just East High Angels. They’re A+ Angels.
There are about 20 of them in the room today — all freshmen who have signed up for mentoring. Nine of their volunteer mentors are here, too, sitting in student desks that seem deliberately laid out to insult Feng Shui — two banks of desks three deep on each side of the room facing each other. A+ Angel mentoring occurs at different times, but this 7:30 a.m. study hall is popular with mentors who make their way downtown in the morning.
David Fine sits in one of the desks. David has a daughter of his own at East, but joined A+ Angels to make a contribution to the community, and he gets satisfaction out of teaching and helping people. It takes him about an hour a week. He says he loves it.
Meanwhile, an A+ Angel we will call Arthur is giving Mr. Laurie an earful. Arthur says the immigration rallies and walkouts of the day before were about families. "They’re trying to break up families," he says. "Send the dads back to Mexico and force the kids to stay here." Arthur is mentored by Norm Mueller, who has been with the program since it began three years ago. Mueller says that Arthur, his third mentee, is doing well academically; the young man also works after school at Mueller’s firm.
Arthur is still talking. Mr. Laurie listens patiently. It’s his custom to begin each morning’s A+ Angels study hall with what he calls a "jump off." The immigration discussion is today’s jump-off. Sometimes, a jump-off is a math problem or a vocabulary drill. Jump-offs are meant to wake up the kids, mentally.
A+ Angels identifies nontruant incoming freshmen with nonfailing but below-grade-level academic performance records in middle school. It links them with adult mentors who agree to meet with them at least once a week to work on academic skills, homework, organization and anything else that can keep them afloat. Often, mentors and mentees end up seeing each other in nonacademic settings. Mueller, for example, takes mentees to East basketball games. After freshman year, it is up to the mentor and the student whether to continue the relationship.
East High is a high-energy, racially diverse campus. Its 5A varsity basketball team usually makes the state finals; its Constitutional Scholars political science "X" class usually finishes in the top 10 at the national "We the People" competition. However, despite the diversity and energy there is an academic achievement gap at East that runs along racial fault lines. A+ Angels was organized by a group of East High parents and friends who wanted to do something to close the gap.
Along with Jessica Pearson, one of the organizers of the program was Caren Press, has been mentoring the same two girls for three years. Another ground-floor A+ Angels mentor was Denver Probate Court Judge Jean Stewart; last year, in addition to mentoring a sophomore, she arranged her schedule so she could conduct special programs for all of last year’s freshmen mentees on Friday mornings.
In addition to Fine, Mueller, Press and Judge Stewart, lawyers mentoring in the program this year include Christy Murphy, Patti Wells, Judy Schulman, John Parr, Mark Fulford, Kwali Farbes, and Jeff Pearson.
Wells says one of the reasons she mentors is "getting to know kids from backgrounds different from those of my children and myself." The A+ Angels mentoring experience has taught her "just how much these kids achieve, even when their grades are not that high. Many of them cope with issues at home that would debilitate most adults."
Like other activities that involve swimming upstream, academic mentoring can be humbling as well as exhilarating. The highs are high, the lows are low. It’s good for A+ Angels to have lawyers as mentors, because lawyers have strong organizational and problem-solving skills, plus a ken for success — things most A+ Angels can use more of. It’s good for lawyers to mentor A+ Angels because, in addition to making a difference, they learn things about themselves that — absent this experience — they’re unlikely to learn.
The immigration reform discussion is heating up. Mr. Laurie jots phrases on the chalk board to capture each comment. Then he gives his summary, "This discussion was about how you marshal facts to make an argument." The jump-off is over. The nine grownups and nine freshmen wander off to the library or a nearby coffee shop to spend the next hour together.
For more information about A+ Angels, and to sign up, contact Jeff Pearson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 355-2975.