Dana Dickens likes it when her former students check in with her and when they do, several will ask if their old school — P.S. 76, the Asa Philip Randolph School for the Humanities in New York City — still offers a specific mentoring program that they remember fondly but, to others, may seem like it would have difficulty attracting participants.
That’s because it meets on Fridays after school and it’s only for students with learning differences.
But for 14 years, the school's Eye to Eye program has been the desired meeting place for middle school students struggling with attention, executive functioning, dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
“It's hard to say ‘no’ because a lot of kids want to come to Eye to Eye, but Eye to Eye is not the place for everybody, but everybody wants to be there,” said Dickens, who is a special educator and social-emotional learning instructor at the pre-K-8 school.
The key to the national nonprofit’s popularity with students, said founder and CEO David Flink, is that students are paired with "near-peer" mentors who are like them — people who have learning differences. The mentors are college students who are only five or so years older than the students, which adds to the cool factor, Flink said.
The mentors don’t tutor the students. Instead, they meet once a week for a school year and, using an arts-based curriculum, help build each student’s confidence, self-advocacy skills and recognition of their own strengths.
“It takes bravery to do what our kids are doing and what our educators are doing, and we're here to create that connective tissue of understanding,” said Flink, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the 5th grade. “That's where our proximity to the lived experience of having a learning disability sits.”
About one in five children and adults in the country have learning and attention issues, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Specific learning disability is the most prevalent disability category for students ages 6-21 served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
About 2.3 million students of a total of 6.3 million IDEA-eligible students are identified as having a specific learning disability, according to a 2020 report to Congress on the implementation of IDEA. Students with learning disabilities may also have Section 504 plans.
A 2017 NCLD report pointed out that children with learning and attention issues are often misunderstood as lazy or unintelligent but that they are as capable as their peers and can achieve at high levels. Without effective academic or emotional support, they are much more likely than their peers to repeat a grade, get suspended and drop out, the report said.
The pandemic’s forced school closures challenged educators’ capacity to identify and serve students with disabilities, including those with learning differences. In guidance for federal COVID-19 relief funding, the U.S Department of Education has urged schools to direct money toward addressing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain student populations, including those with disabilities.
Flink views Eye to Eye’s contribution to students’ pandemic recovery as social-emotional support rather than tutoring for learning loss. “We stood by them during the pandemic, before the pandemic, and we're going to be here after,” Flink said. “These kids have to come back with a strong sense of self and the ability to feel like they're going to be able to succeed and we give kids that.”
When students and their mentors meet, they work on an art project that focuses on different weekly topics, such as self-advocacy, the support of allies, and understanding how to enhance individual strengths. The art projects are typically based on the student’s interests.
For example, Zack Dwyer, a senior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, who is president of the university’s Eye to Eye chapter, worked with one middle school student who had an affinity for sports.
In a project about the importance of having allies, the student and Dwyer used green paper to make a soccer field. Each position on the soccer team represented a supportive person in that student’s life, such as friends, siblings and teachers. The goalie represented the student’s mother. The art project showed the student that he has a large team of people in his life who will help him succeed, said Dwyer, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 2nd grade.
“We want a world where young people know how to ask for what they need.”
CEO and founder of Eye to Eye
"Dickens, the teacher, said students who participate in the program, which is provided at no cost to students and is offered on a fee-for-service basis to participating schools, are better prepared to talk about their individual abilities and needs. It also builds their self-confidence, she said."
One student participant had been afraid to tell her teacher she needed extra time on some math assignments but after working with her mentor, the student was able to have that conversation with her teacher, Dickens said.
“The teacher appreciated that she was able to verbalize her needs,” Dickens said.
Eye to Eye also has a professional development program that helps general education teachers better understand the social-emotional needs of students with learning differences, as well as ways to provide inclusive and supportive classrooms for all learners. The nonprofit also plans to ensure that at least 50% of the schools it partners with this year are Title I schools.
“We want a world where young people know how to ask for what they need,” Flink said. “That's what our mentoring provides and the adults around them know how to say yes to those things. Sometimes we only have to do one of those two parts of the equation. Sometimes we just have to support the kids to feel more empowered to ask for what they need, and sometimes we're helping the adults around them be able to say, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, the cost of the mentoring program was misstated. It is free to students but offered at a fee-for-service basis to participating schools.