We spoke at length with Dr. Claudia Cataldo, English teacher, Academic Decathlon Coach, and Falcon Feminists and Gay Straight Alliance Faculty Advisor at Santee Education Complex, about the importance of supporting incoming international students on campus. Learn how the need for support at Santee evolved into a mentorship program.

Dr. Cataldo is personally invested in helping students from Central America and Mexico successfully adapt to their new environment.

Tell us a little more about the students who participate in the program.

Our English learner mentor program is composed of two groups of students: mentors and mentees. Some mentors are non-English learners who speak Spanish, and others are advanced English learners; all are seniors on track to graduate this year. Our mentees are all English learners who are new to this country. I recruited the mentors and matched each with a mentee based on whatever I knew or could find out about their individual personality types and needs. Our new international student population is from Central America and Mexico, and the students tend to be 14-16 years old, though some are older and may have graduated from high school in their home country (but their diplomas aren’t valid here so they are placed in classes with younger students).  Many of them also have had traumatic journeys, spent time in detention centers, and may live with relatives they just met or barely know, and there is an unrealistic expectation placed upon them to fully immerse and perform well at school as soon as they arrive. These and other issues can cause tremendous frustration and, as a result, some have terrible attendance or even stop coming to school. Some struggle in social settings, have challenges communicating, have no family ties, or are demonstrating signs of trauma and depression. Though I have no control over their lives before their arrival here, at least through this program I can make sure they have a soft landing at Santee.

How did the mentorship program come about?

The idea for it originated last year when I observed that some of my colleagues needed additional support in their English Language Development (ELD) 1 and 2 classes. We were receiving new international students, a vast majority from Central America, so there was an increase in the number of students taking ELD courses. They required more focused attention due to language and cultural barriers. When one of my colleagues struggled with managing some of the attention-seeking behavior, especially of several boys, I told her to send the boys to me. I teach AP English Literature and Expository Reading and Writing to seniors, so when the boys came to me, I thought it might be a good idea to have the older kids talk to them. Though at first I thought my students would be a bit harsh, to my surprise I noticed immediately how much they wanted to help the new international students; they were very kind and supportive and provided tips to navigate their way around the school and even deal with other life challenges. Many of them gave genuinely motivational advice and told the boys how much they related to them, how they may even have been like them at a younger age. I was amazed and touched by how much caring my seniors showed to these boys they had just met. So that is what sparked the idea for this program.

What responses have you received from students in this mentorship program?

My mentors feel really good about it. They love it and are tremendously invested after only four months. There can be stigmas associated with students perceived as “bad kids” that the students themselves internalize, sometimes also because of comments from family members. Some of the seniors even questioned why I asked them to be mentors in the first place.  I often heard mentors saying they wished something like this was offered to them when they were in ninth grade or younger. They are helping others in a way in which they wish they had been helped. Helping other kids also helps them see the value in themselves, the value in their own challenging experiences. I explained to all of them that their struggles have given them a compassion and sensitivity that can benefit others. It is so beautiful to see the true caring they have all developed for one another. This program allows all of them to see what is possible when you open yourself up and give of yourself to someone who also needs to feel warmth and understanding in a tough world.

Since this program began, what changes have you seen in the students?

For the most part, every student’s attendance has improved. My colleagues and I have analyzed attendance data to see if there are patterns of improvement and we’ve definitely seen a positive outcome. We also cannot understate the huge social-emotional benefits we’ve observed. Although some of our students still struggle with factors beyond our control, our ELD teachers have noticed that mentees’ attitudes towards learning and being at school have improved and that they seem more positive and upbeat in general, especially right after the meetings. In the past, some of the mentors were labeled as “troublemakers” and so they lived up to it. But now they are coming to school every day, they have gained more confidence in themselves, and they have developed amazing leadership skills.  When I see the mentors going through things, losing motivation, and slipping in different ways, I step in and remind them how grateful I am for their help, how much the whole school values what they’re doing, and that they need to keep going for themselves and their mentees. And I am so happy to say that no matter what is going on in the mentors’ lives, they all show up every single time. I believe the program has changed all of them for the better. 

What learnings would you share with other teachers interested in creating a program like this?

Don’t micromanage the mentors. When we meet, we don’t have norms beyond the usual, we don’t set agendas, and we don’t force icebreakers or activities. Don’t impose any formal structures on them because it will cause tension and resistance, and we need the mentors to want to show up. We have no program without them, so we leave it in their hands; we gently guide them, give them advice, urge them to use their best judgment, tell them we have faith in them to find the best ways to bond with and help their mentees, but let them lead and run many aspects of the program themselves. We place a lot of trust in them, which is something that hasn’t been given to them in the past. This shows them we care and believe in them, and because they feel such ownership in the program, they have responded by putting an unbelievable amount of time and effort into it. They spend time after school getting ready for our cultural events, and they keep tabs on their mentees in various ways between lunch meetings (which are twice a month). Their involvement with making sure their mentees’ needs are met extends well beyond the time we give them together, which is extraordinary. We do ensure that students who we recruit as mentors are fluent Spanish-speakers since the vast majority of new international students only speak Spanish. One final piece of advice is the understanding that creating a mentor program should come from the heart and a willingness to do a lot without asking for anything in return. The pay-offs are emotional.

How have your colleagues supported you with the program?

I have been so happy and lucky to have great colleagues I can rely on who are as emotionally invested in this program as I am. They have also been really kind and supportive of me when I get worried and anxious about every little detail, especially the details I can’t control. Our Attendance Counselor Alejandra Heredia, our English Learner Designated Coach Eilene Vasquez, our Psychiatric Social Workers, and our ELD teachers have been immensely supportive of the program. They have given money, time, and their full selves to seeing this program succeed. They care so much, too! Personally, this has also benefitted me because it has been a way to re-channel my own helpless anger and frustration over all the negative political news and the state of the world into something totally positive. I have been so moved to see the bonds that have developed, to see the beautiful ways both groups are helping each other. The bonds with my colleagues are also very meaningful to me. I have been so grateful to our principal Susana Gutierrez for her unwavering belief in our program; she has been staunchly behind us from the beginning. So I’m constantly inspired to keep going forward full throttle.

If you have comments or questions about the program, please contact Dr. Cataldo directly at ckc0793@lausd.net. She is more than happy to talk to or meet with anyone who may be interested in setting up such a program at their school.