How text messages help mentors connect with students in Idaho

By Nichole Dobo
The Hechinger Report

The text message is a powerful tool in an unconventional high school program in Idaho.

The technology allows mentors working with Idaho PTECH to reach high school students in far-flung places in this sparsely populated state. The high-tech, one-on-one mentoring is part of a pilot program that aims to help students discover and prepare for a career that they can embark on right out of high school, or with minimal post-secondary training.

“They don’t know what they want a lot of times,” said Alan Millar, executive director of Idaho PTECH, so the mentoring provides “a caring adult to talk about goals, reaffirm them, and make concrete steps how to get there.”

In a state like Idaho, where rural students greatly outnumber those in urban centers, reaching students with the right message at the right time is part of a larger effort to prepare students for life after high school. Idaho PTECH works with industry leaders to figure out what jobs are in demand locally, and what skills are needed for them. In return, it helps students who are interested match with the experiences (academically and socially) they need to get into those careers.

Get on the phone and it’s just one-word answers. But I can text back and forth with a student and they won’t lose focus.
– Hayley Kimble, a PTECH mentor

The concept of using text messages to guide students has been backed up by research. Electronic, personalized messages have helped boost student activity during summer months, encouraged parents to do activities that improve early literacy and caught students on the verge of dropping out of high school. It is not just the act of sending a message that matters. The information in it – and the time of day it’s sent – can make a difference.

Idaho PTECH’s mentoring program makes use of InsideTrack, a company that assists with personalized mentoring. Students are also being mentored via an online group – sort of like Facebook – where they interact and do activities. And the mentors are available by phone, too.

Dave Jarrat, a vice president at InsideTrack, said the company had discovered, through work that included mentoring programs at large, well-known universities, that electronic modes of communication allowed them to work with more students more effectively. Some students prefer to talk via text message, for instance, and they open up more to mentors when contacted that way.

“Technology has really helped with that,” said Hayley Kimble, a PTECH mentor from InsideTrack. “Get on the phone and it’s just one-word answers. But I can text back and forth with a student and they won’t lose focus.”

That’s not to say the technology simply serves messages in the most comfortable format. The mentors (they call themselves coaches) ask questions to determine the goals of each student. Some students need to be pushed outside their comfort zone. Kimble worked with one student, who had been homeschooled, on his telephone skills, which were sorely lacking. Improving that skill was important to the student’s success after high school.

This article originally appeared in The Hechinger Report on November 22, 2016

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