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VAES/VAHS Big Brother Program

June 17, 2022

At Bright Star Schools, our “whole child” approach means that we meet our students where they are. We know them and their individual needs, and from there, we support them to learn, grow, and thrive no matter what.

Our campuses reopened fully in fall 2021 after closing in March 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. We knew our students would come back to our schools this fall with different and more acute needs because of the impact of COVID.

We also knew that our incredible educators would be ready with the ideas, passion, and dedication they always bring. We knew they’d be ready to innovate.

In spring 2022, Victor Lee, Assistant Principal of Instruction for Valor Academy High School, had an idea for a “big brother” mentorship program between his high school and Valor Academy Elementary School.

Mr. Lee had created an advisory group to support the social-emotional and academic growth of a group of 14 9th grade boys who exhibited challenging behaviors as they transitioned back to in-person learning. After working on mindfulness, conflict resolution, and character development, Mr. Lee wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to become the role models he knew they could be. He reached out to Talar Samuelian, Assistant Principal of Culture for Valor Academy Elementary School, to bring the program to life.

Ms. Samuelian selected 28 3rd grade boys who exhibited similar challenges in returning to in-person learning. Together, they planned a program where the selected students would meet at school, work on literacy, character building, conflict resolution, and community building. They partnered each 9th grade student with two 3rd grade students, to serve as a “big brother,” mentor and role model.

The experience was meaningful and powerful for all the students who participated. We sat down with Mr. Lee and Ms. Samuelian to learn more about how they brought the program to life, how it helped our students, and what we can all learn from their experience.

Bright Star Schools: How did the Big Brother program come about?

Mr. Lee: “I noticed over the past two to three years, words like ‘equity’ and ‘social justice’ have been buzz words. People would say them, but there was little substance or action behind them. My experience at Bright Star has been the opposite. Here, we take an equity approach. We look at the quantitative and qualitative data to see what students need, and put supports in place that reflect their needs.

“Here, we encourage people to go with their gut and think outside of the box, because we can’t address these issues by doing the same things over and over. For the group of boys who participated in the Big Brother program, the conventional approach hadn’t worked. If you have an idea, speak it into existence. I connected with dope people like Talar who wanted to see it become a reality, and we created the program.”

Bright Star Schools: What were you seeing from the data about students’ needs?

Ms. Samuelian: “In the last few years with the pandemic and looking at results on our student surveys, we saw that that sense of belonging was missing. By necessity, we started the year physically distancing and wearing masks, and we needed a way to bring our sense of community back.

“We also saw that our 9th graders and 3rd graders were struggling. Our 3rd graders hadn’t been on campus since 1st grade, and they’d missed out on social development and how to play appropriately, on top of academic loss.

“The Big Brother program was a great way to connect with the high school, and our students needed these mentors. We thought what better way to inspire our students to take ownership of their education and feel that sense of community and belonging than with high school role models. We wanted to have the 9th graders come and read to our students, to encourage literacy, and Victor also had the idea to have them discuss conflict resolution.”

Bright Star Schools: What did you see as the benefits for the high school students?

Mr. Lee: “We have some 9th grade boys who had an exceptionally difficult time transitioning from middle school to high school. We have real conversations about topics and things they’re experiencing, and we provide them academic support as well. I saw this program as helping them take the next step in developing their leadership and having agency in their own community.

“The boys I’ve worked with have been called a lot of things, and none of those was ‘role model.’ But if you start calling them that enough, they believe it. So I started thinking about the opportunities we could give them to internalize these positive beliefs about themselves. Going into our first meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But to see them own this new role and make a genuine effort to build relationships with their ‘little brothers’ was incredible. I was amazed to see what they can do, given the opportunity.

Bright Star Schools: What were some of the outcomes you wanted to see from the program?

Mr. Lee: “Conflict resolution was important. In looking at some of the behaviors we see on our high school campus, we wanted to figure out a way to play the long game. How can we intervene with behaviors starting in elementary school? We have students talk with adults about bullying and how they respond to different conflict situations, but we knew it was also necessary for our students to talk with each other.

“Educators can talk about these things over and over, but when it comes from the big [high school] homie that elementary students look up to, that they see walking to school every day, wearing what they do, and listening to what they do, their words hold so much more weight.”

Bright Star Schools: What was the impact on the “little brothers” and the “big brothers”?

Ms. Samuelian: “It was magnetic. We had fewer calls with behavior incidents with the group of boys who participated in the program. As part of the program, we’ve also set them up as pen pals, so they keep their connection going between school visits. Our students know they'll have that contact again with big brother, and they look forward to engaging with their mentor. After the first visit, it was still very much an ongoing conversation for our students. It really motivated them.”

Mr. Lee: “When we got back to campus, I checked in with my boys, and they were feeling such a sense of relief. They didn’t want to mess it up, and they didn’t take this opportunity lightly. It was a healthy type of anxiety, of ‘we did it, it’s over, we're happy with the experience, and we want to go back and connect with them again.’ They also brought ideas for what we could do next time, and they were excited.

“That was a big deal for them. It’s like the message from Nipsey Hussle:

‘I feel like I got to tell you you got something to contribute
Regardless what you into, regardless what you been through
I feel like I got to tell you you got something to contribute’

“It was cool to see our students realize, ‘I may not be the best reader, I may not make the best decisions, but I know I have something to contribute to this space, this student, this community.’ To see them own that, it was like a light switch turning on.”

Bright Star Schools: What advice would you give to anyone looking to start a similar program?

Ms. Samuelian: “Start small. Target a subgroup of kids who have needs that are high. Also, it matters who leads the program. I don’t know if anyone else would have carved out that time and effort that Victor did to launch it. I’d like to see more teachers and staff be a part of it next year. It takes a village!”

Mr. Lee: “I encourage people to go with their gut and think outside of the box because we can’t address these issues by doing the same things over and over. The conventional approach hasn’t worked for my particular group of boys. So if you have an idea, speak it into existence and connect with dope people like Talar who want to see it become a reality. It wouldn’t have been a success if she wasn't open to it.”

Bright Star Schools: The work of educators is tough, and even harder because of COVID. How do you stay motivated?

Mr. Lee: “We’re very passionate about this work. Hearing my students’ stories and what they go through, to see them showing up every day after knowing what they've been through is truly inspiring. If that doesn’t fill my cup, I don’t know what can. To know they show up every day, I show up every day ready to get this work done.”

Ms. Samuelian: “I want our elementary students to go on to Valor Academy Middle School, to Valor Academy High School, to college and succeed there. They’re not going to get there if we don’t build relationships with them to help them get there. I want more for them than just to do well on a test. I want them to have leadership skills and opportunities, to be motivated to read a book, to take care of their emotional needs. As an educator, my entry point is to build relationships so our students succeed.”