Building Bright Futures through Mentorship

High school and elementary students talking during lunch.

A reenergized Appleton Area School District mentoring program has fifth-graders hanging with high school students as if they were celebrities.

Many quickly join in a game of touch football, a simple walk around the playground or excited conversation over lunch.

The Appleton West High School students are part of the Juntos mentoring program. This day, their mentees were students at Dunlap Elementary.

“Juntos” means “together” in Spanish. The mentorship experience helps high school students of color to develop their leadership skills through peer-to-peer mentorship at Appleton elementary and middle schools.

A $10,000 Big Idea grant from the Appleton Education Foundation, along with funding from other community partners, supports the program. Early results are encouraging.

“I think youth empowerment builds selfimage and self-esteem,” said Neo Medina, who coordinates the district’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion mentor program. “Sharing power lets students know they are so capable of great things. This is a critical message.”

Medina said it is important for younger students to see older students that look like them.

“It is a way for them to see themselves and have a space to feel seen, heard and valued,” he said. “Overall, the goal is to improve positive life outcomes for our youth of color.”

In this first school year under Medina’s watch, almost 30 high school students – with representation from Appleton West, East and North high schools – are participating out of 42 who applied. Although the application is simple, Medina said the high school applicants must have regular school attendance and sometimes he needs to tell students to improve their attendance and then reapply.

Medina knows it is important for mentors to have purposeful work. In that way, Juntos can be just as catalytic for the mentors as it is the mentees. He says pouring energy and resources into our young leaders will have a ripple effect that extends beyond those participating in Juntos.

“Investing in our youth of color is a sure thing,” Medina said. “I am excited to witness the growth and watch them build strength and resilience from within. Juntos.”

This story first appeared in AEF’s 2023 Report to the Community in spring 2024. Review the complete 2023 Report to the Community.