It’s safe to say its new BIONIC program has helped Mattoon High School undergo significant changes for the better, and MHS has a member of EIU’s Department of Counseling and Student Development faculty to thank for the concept and implementation.
Dr. Heidi Larson, a Mattoon resident, was attending an out-of-town conference when she first caught wind of BIONIC, a high school mentoring program and an acronym for Believe It Or Not I Care. A conference presenter spoke about how her small-town Colorado school dealt with the devastation of three suicidal losses.
“She was really concerned and it had a ripple effect in her school,” said Larson. “So she decided to do this and understand what these students were missing. What did they need? At the conference, what she did was not only provide some of the data and some of the resources she found were missing at her school, but she also had footage and clips about the students and how it transformed and changed not only their high school but changed them as young people.”
“Leaving that conference, I thought ‘if they could do it in a small town in Colorado, we can do it in a small town in Illinois.’ From there I decided that was what I was going to do with my research and my sabbatical.”
A meeting with MHS Principal Michele Sinclaire and De Pearcy, a school counselor and the program’s official sponsor at Mattoon, helped Larson realize she’d have some enthusiastic supporters in getting a similar program installed in Mattoon.
“They were not only excited about it, they were willing to bring resources and staff and people in order to make it happen and sustain the program beyond my sabbatical,” remembers Larson.
Adds Sinclaire: “I just want kids to feel like they belong. I think that’s the overall thing. We want you here. We’re glad you’re here. I think that’s probably the overarching goal of the program for me.”
At Mattoon, BIONIC consists of four parts: A freshman mentoring program, a grief team, a transfer team, and an extended absence team.
The most active component of BIONIC at Mattoon is the freshman mentoring program, in which juniors and seniors volunteer to take freshmen under their wings and aid in their transition to the life of a high school student. With two teachers’ recommendations and participation in the summer Leadership Institute Training, these mentors are assigned five freshmen at the beginning of the school year.
“They begin the school year meeting every day for two weeks,” explained Larson. “Right before lunch, they go in a classroom; they do a little curriculum and some ice breakers getting to know each other. From there, they go to lunch, where they not only eat together, but they share experiences, ask questions, and also hopefully influence those freshmen in a positive way.”
After those initial two weeks, the students continue to eat lunch together once a week on Thursdays. In its first year, the program was wildly successful in Larson’s eyes.
“The impact at Mattoon has been beyond what I had anticipated,” elaborated Larson.
“Not only have the freshmen benefited in the ways we hoped, but the mentors have changed in ways we didn’t really anticipate.”
Larson says the mentors have faced – and in many cases conquered – unexpected challenges of filling a mentoring role and become more selfless in the process.
“By proxy, I think I myself have learned too about how hard it is to mentor and some of the rewards and the benefits of touching people’s lives in a really powerful way,” said Larson. “I’m getting so much more back than I anticipated. It makes you want to give more, so it’s this relationship that continues to grow.”
A sad fact of life is that within a school year, several students and faculty/staff are going to deal with the loss of a loved one. While a certain amount of time away from school is afforded to these people, those who serve on the Grief Team know the road to recovery from that loss is typically much longer.
“After two days of taking your bereavement leave, you come back and life just happens as it normally did,” said Larson. “We wanted something different; a different feel for the students and the staff to say that someone really does care and that we notice you might be hurting or that this might be a difficult time for you.”
With that person’s advance permission, a group of Grief Team members – a mixture of students and staff – get together on a Monday evening and visit his/her home to deliver a pie as a symbol of their condolences.
“Students learn how to reach out to someone they’re concerned about,” elaborated Larson. “When situations might be a little bit uncomfortable, (mentors/staff) now have some underpinnings or some experiences to say ‘I can do this. I can reach out and take care of them? because I know how to do that.’”
Larson recalled the first night of pie delivery; after her car’s final stop, a student in the group confessed to having no idea the people they’d just brought a pie to was even grieving.
“She realized at that moment how important it is to extend care to others and to reach out when we know someone is hurting,” said Larson. “The value of doing that means so much to the person receiving it.”
Transfer Team and Extended Absence Team
Moving into a new school district can be a difficult time of adjustment for a high school student, and Larson said before implementing BIONIC she had no idea just how many students are moving in and out of MHS during a given school year; transfer students are assigned a mentor to help them get the hang of their new surroundings.
“What we realized is that not much is done to help students acclimate to a new school, to a new culture,” said Larson. “That mentor will meet the student initially at the office and then is charged with the opportunity to take that student to each of their classes and also pick them up at the end of the hour.”
This goes on for three days and also includes eating lunch together. After that, there are follow-up sessions on the last Wednesday of each month during which students who have transferred into the district are invited for a pizza lunch to see how things are going.
Another tough situation for a student would be missing three or more days of school because of illness, funerals, surgeries, or any other reason beyond his/her control. The Extended Absence Team helps students with the unenviable task of keeping pace with the ever-accumulating homework that piles up in such scenarios.
“We have a group of mentors that will collect the homework and put it together and also create a schedule,” said Larson. “This is left at the office for a parent to come pick up.
“We also offer free tutoring on Wednesdays from mentors before and after school; the students can come and receive services if they would like in order to help them catch up.”
Role of EIU Graduate Students
Larson has also gotten departmental graduate students in on the action, allowing these interns to observe and experience the implementation of a program like BIONIC.
“They have an enormous role in the undertaking and success of BIONIC at Mattoon High School,” said Larson, whose interns began their involvement in the summer with the three-day leadership institute and continued throughout the year.
“The interns not only help with coordinating the freshman mentoring, they develop the curriculum, and make sure the classroom is ready to go. Two of the interns are meeting with a handful of mentors who just need a little extra support and a little guidance on how to be a leader and how to continue to invest in students even when maybe you’re not getting what you need from them.”
Interns also serve as team leaders for each of the four groups within BIONIC, developing or honing their leadership skills. There is also a lot of housekeeping involved: Texting participating students and teachers to make sure they don’t forget meetings, presenting collected data at faculty meetings, and ordering pies for the Grief Team’s work.
And the presence of these college students is also another perk for the MHS students who participate.
“As high school students, not only do they get to learn how to serve, but they also get to be around college students,” said Larson. “College is an awesome place and they have a chance to see what they can do. You can come back and be with high school students, you can help in ways that maybe you never even thought about.”
A Great Success
Larson never doubted that Mattoon High School was capable of supporting a program like BIONIC, but that doesn’t mean the last year hasn’t been met with some surprise.
“It’s better than I thought it was going to be,” admitted Larson. “It’s better for me. It’s better for the school. It’s better for the students. It’s an amazing experience for my graduate students.
“I believe high school is an opportunity for students to make decisions about the rest of their lives. So if they’re here and they have some guidance and some mentoring – someone who’s looking out for them – perhaps they can see some of the potential and opportunities they didn’t know they had with the help of an upperclassman.”
An anecdote from one night with the Grief Team might be the best way to sum up Larson’s feelings on the matter.
“There’s a young girl I knew outside the school,” said Larson. “She’s a junior. Afterwards, we’re processing at the car and she looked at me and said: ‘Dr. Larson I’ve always wanted to do really nice things for other people and I just haven’t had the opportunity. Today, I feel better about myself. I feel like I’m a better person.’
“As a psychologist, I understand how hard it is to build self-esteem and self-concept in young women, so by giving to others she was able to immediately feel better about herself. That is pretty important and telling.”