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Bridgeport Kids Conjure College Dreams In Unique Mentoring Program

SHU sophomore Linh Nguyen and eighth-grader Natalie Lopez share a laugh through the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program at Winthrop School in Bridgeport. Photo Credit: Meredith Guinness
Sacred Heart University mentors and John Winthrop School students work to improve graduation rates in Bridgeport through the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program. Photo Credit: Meredith Guinness

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — It’s always stressful switching schools, but seventh-grade isn’t exactly the ideal time to try it.

Just ask Natalie Lopez, who transferred to Bridgeport’s John Winthrop School in 2015. Even though she finds some classes a breeze, she freely admits she needed a little help and advice getting the lay of the land.

That’s why her teachers encouraged her to apply for the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program (JZ-AMP).

Now she spends a few hours after school two days a week, studying and chatting with Linh Nguyen, a sophomore nursing student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield and a positive presence in the young girl’s life.

“It’s lit,” Lopez said of the program. “I like how you get to experience college, how college students interact with us. Some subjects are easy for me but we still have them to rely on.”

Sacred Heart students have been mentoring kids at Winthrop School for 15 years, thanks to funding from the Zimmermann Foundation. The program is unusual in that it pairs college students with children for the full three years they are in middle school, creating lasting bonds, said Andrea Canuel, SHU’s assistant director of volunteer programs and service learning

“The main goal is academic support and encouraging them to keep up with their work and graduate from high school,” she said.

And it’s working: According to the latest data, 89 percent of children who completed JZ-AMP graduated from high school compared with the city’s average of 67 percent.

Each undergraduate is paired with two children and there are 30 kids in the program at any given time, said Katie Prendella, an SHU graduate who coordinates the program. Students spend the first hour or so completing homework with their mentors and the second hour might be a group activity, such as a CPR lesson from a local EMT or a visit from a spoken word poet.

In addition, the group goes on field trips, including a very popular jaunt to Medieval Times, a restaurant/live show in New Jersey that whisks diners back to the 11th century, where they watch knights joust and eat a hearty silverware-free meal.

“That chicken was the bomb!” said Lopez. “It was A-1!”

Nguyen giggled at her effusive young friend. She said she really appreciates the difference between gregarious Lopez and her more reserved student, eighth-grader Kim Heng.

“Kim is from Cambodia and these are the most polar opposite children,” she said, laughing.

When Heng gets too quiet or serious, Lopez can make her laugh.

“And when (Natalie) needs to focus, Kim is, like, ‘simmer,’” she said.

Susan Beres, a seventh-grade teacher who works with the program, said she appreciates the way it tailors itself to a child’s individual needs and exposes kids to the possibility of college in a natural, organic way.

“A lot of them stay friends with their mentors,” she said. “It’s like a little family.”

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