Fifth-grader Dailen Richardson stares down at his Scrabble letter tiles, then eyes his opponent.
Sitting across from Dailen is David Gutkowski, who smiles into the staredown. Gutkowski volunteers with the mentoring program at Dogwood Elementary in Reston. In his two years as Dailen’s mentor, Gutkoski says, the two have had their share of friendly but fierce board game battles.
“We had to switch our go-to game from Connect Four to Scrabble,” says Gutkowski while Dailen continues to ponder his next move. “He routinely crushed me at Connect Four.”
“I got to take it easy on him,” Dailen says, as he places tiles on the board. “I’m winning again.”
Dailen is one of more than 7,000 students across the county paired with a mentor, according to Shelley Prince, the school system’s mentoring specialist. Mentors provide an extra layer of support for students, outside the normal academic or family structure.
While mentoring programs are run through individual schools, FCPS formed MentorWorks at the county level in 1999 to organize these efforts. Now, though schools are not required to have mentoring programs, about 75 percent do.
Anyone can volunteer to be a mentor, as long as they pass a background check and commit to mentoring for a full academic year. Mentors are matched based on preferred location and grade level, and meet with their students for at least one hour each week.
“What they do each week really depends on the program, but whether you’re working on homework, knitting scarves or playing basketball, what matters is establishing a relationship,” Prince said.
Many school mentoring programs form partnerships with local businesses and organizations.
That is how the program got started at Dogwood Elementary. In summer 2012, the Odin Feldman Pittleman law firm moved its office to Reston and wanted to get involved in the surrounding community. So the law firm approached the elementary school asking how they could help.
Jen Franconeri, a Dogwood Elementary School counselor, had been looking to form a mentoring program and jumped at the opportunity. The last two years, about 20 employees of the law firm and 20 staff members from Dogwood have each been paired with a student. Mentors meet with mentees once a week during students’ lunch periods.
The vision of the school system is that each student would have a mentor, but the demand for the role models outweighs supply. So each school needs to decide how to allocate mentors among students.
For Franconeri, it comes down to tough choices. More than half of the students at the Reston school are English language learners, and more than 70 percent receive free or reduced-cost lunches.
“Every child can use a mentor,” Franconeri said. “Every single child. That’s kind of a tough thing, because we get a lot of kids who want a mentor, but you have to make it work out with the numbers.”
In the end, while students can be recommended by teachers for the program, according to Franconeri, most self-identify. Students see friends with mentors and ask for their own. While not every student who asks can have a mentor, Franconeri does her best.
In the activity room at Dogwood Elementary, one mentor-mentee pair are doing a puzzle, and another are playing a board game. Dailen’s 7-year-old brother Davian is chatting animatedly with his mentor.
For Gutkowski and Dailen, the conversation has switched to football. Dailen plays defensive tackle on his youth team and is just as avid about watching the game.
While Dailen flips through an NFL encyclopedia, Gutkowski notes that for him, volunteering at Dogwood literally hits close to home.
Now a lawyer at Odin Feldman Pittleman, Gutkowski grew up across the street and attended the school as a child.
“So giving an hour a week to meet with these children, it’s really not asking too much,” Gutkowski said. “I get a lot out of it. As much or more than the kids do, I think.”
“People tell me that all the time,” Prince said. Prince, though, said mentors like Gutkowski underestimate the effect they have on their mentees.
“It’s hard for them to see their real impact on these kids,” Prince said. “But I see it. I know how much they mean for these children.”