Nov. 20, 2014 – A mentoring program at the University of Houston Law Center designed to reach youth early, strengthen their ties to school, and teach valuable skills to help them succeed in school and beyond is seeking volunteers to serve eighth-grade students at a charter school in the city’s Third Ward.
The Juvenile & Capital Advocacy Project is an offshoot of the Texas Innocence Network, led by capital defense lawyer and UHLC Professor David Dow. JCAP began this school year at WALIPP, the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity, named after the founding minister of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and long-time Houston civil rights leader.
In his 2012 TED Talk in Austin, Dow makes the case that the best way to lessen the need for capital punishment is to provide a path away from the criminal justice system to those at risk long before a capital murder takes place.
Erin Osborn, a UHLC graduate and director of the mentorship program, was inspired to get involved with JCAP after taking one of Dow's innocence investigation classes and reading one of his books on the death penalty.
At WALLIP, the program is not specifically aimed at "at-risk" children or those that are already involved in the juvenile justice system, Osborn said. As a charter school, not all of the students are from the immediate area of the Third Ward. But a majority of them do come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, she said.
"The program is just to engage with youth," said Osborn, adding that before beginning the project she did a lot of research on best practices for juvenile justice and school discipline polices. "The big buzzword right now is the 'school to prison pipeline,' " she said.
In the eighth-grade class at WALIPP, there are 26 students in the Girls Academy and 16 students in the Boys Academy. An additional nine volunteers are needed for the girls and four for the boys, Osborn said.
"Ideally, I'd like there to be one for everyone, because I think everyone can benefit," she said. Some students are reluctant to be matched with a volunteer because of the fear of social stigma, she said. If everyone in the class had a mentor, she said, that stigma might be lessened.
"I pair people with who I think they're going to get along with. I do ask teachers who they think needs it most," she said.
Previously, many volunteers came to the program through a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course taught by Dow. Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, is a volunteer and recruited others through her organization's newsletter.
"The experience has been extremely rewarding because educating and empowering our youth is the best way to avoid the criminal justice system,” she said. ”Many of these students have been identified as ‘at-risk’ and as mentors we are intervening early to redirect them and assist in a more positive future." Other mentors have come from UH's Metropolitan Volunteer Program, a program for undergraduates, and from the ranks of the law school, Osborn said.
Chris Mayer, a second-year law student at UHLC, said he was attracted to the program because it offered a chance to do something rewarding outside of his legal studies.
Mayer has been meeting for the past couple of months with his WALIPP mentee during the lunch hour. It was a challenge getting the young man to open up at first, but over time he has become more receptive.
Mayer, who is also a CPA, said the boy at first talked about simply getting through high school as his main goal in life. But after spending time with him, he said, the boy has begun to see the benefits of going to college.
“It’s gratifying for me to see that I’ve had an impact,” he said.
Volunteers are asked to meet with their student at the school at least once a week. They can meet during the students’ lunch break, which is 11:44 a.m. to 12:14 p.m. for girls and 12:38 p.m. to 1:08 p.m. for boys Monday thru Friday, or for a half-hour during the students’ tutorial hour, which is 3-4 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday. Volunteers are asked to make up any meetings missed because of other commitments.
All volunteers must be 18 years old or older and are asked to make a commitment of at least one year.
Volunteers go through a background check and are provided training. Initially, Osborn provided an in-person training session that lasted most of a day. She recorded those sessions and condensed them to about two hours and 45 minutes, with lesson materials provided.
“Ideal mentoring really comes after you build a relationship; the kid is comfortable,” Osborn said. “You're really there to affirm, ‘you’re great, and you’re interesting.’ Let them dictate what they talk about. Talk about what they're interested in and show an interest in them.”
As the program grows, Osborn hopes to track its effectiveness and is looking forward to working with other colleges at the university to create research models. There are already studies showing the benefits of mentoring, including increased high school graduation rates, improved relationships, better attitudes toward school and increased connections with school and community.