Role Models Rising: Mentorship

Role Models Rising: Mentorship

Any athlete will tell you that keeping an active body helps focus the mind. Physical and mental exercise helps them improve their attention and manage stress. Guided by coaches and supported by team-mates and superfans, student athletes cooperate and build self-confidence while fostering these leadership skills that will aid them throughout their lives. Our Big Brothers Little Brothers (BBLB) program has been helping our Ferndale Eagles Football players to share those gifts with K-2 students at Ferndale Lower Elementary for over a decade.

Big brothers are selected at the beginning of every year from student athletes who exhibit leadership traits on and off the field. The young men are also required to be attentive in each class, delivering weekly reports to their coach tracking their grades and class participation. 

FHS Athlete mentors an elementary student in readingThe big brothers have been visiting the lower elementary school for over a decade, each assigned to one young, male student. Brothers develop a partner handshake and decide on a specific area of academics to focus on, like addition and subtraction or reading. The partners also work on physical development, playing games and exercising together. Most of the younger students are able to attend football games, and often stand with their teachers on the sidelines to watch their big brothers. 

The program was the brainchild of Ferndale Schools Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dina Rocheleau, then principal at Roosevelt Elementary.† Dina was seeking a way to connect young, male students with older role models they could recognize themselves in. The benefits for both partners were immediately encouraging. Little brothers began to show improvements in academics, attention and overall behavior. Big brothers also immediately excelled in the classroom after forming these new bonds. And the program seems to have improved performance on the field as well.

Several of this year’s big brothers were once little brothers in the program themselves, and they attribute some of their 2017 playoff run to the dedication they learned in the program. This is another example of the hidden benefits of a sustained committment to a school family. 

Junior Donovan Pitts-Reed has come full circle from Little Brother to Big Brother. “It really helped me with figuring out what I wanted to be. Now, I’m a role model, sports-wise and education-wise. I’m a student athlete,” Donovan says. “I want to work with these kids now so they understand that hard work does pay off when you get older. You just have to start early and know how to do it, so when the time comes–time to get to the point–it’s easy for you. When I was young, I was really struggling in elementary school. Now that I’m here, its not that hard, and the big brothers helped me with that.” Throughout this year, Donovan has maintained a GPA above 3.0 while excelling as a 3-sport athlete. He was a defensive and offensive lineman on the Football team’s championship run in the fall, qualified for his second-consecutive State Championship Meet in wrestling this winter, and is currently preparing to throw discus in the spring.

The BBLB program has been recognized for its impact as part of the Brain Smart Start initiative. In 2007 and 2011, Ferndale Lower Elementary (then Roosevelt Elementary School) was recognized as a National School of Character and awarded the Promising Practices Award from the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C. It was also named a Michigan School of Character.


Building a strong, safe school family involves reaching across the wide expanse of experiences within our diverse communities. The Big Brother program is one of several mentorship opportunities available to students throughout the district. Peer 2 Peer is just one more.

Peer 2 Peer

Peer to Peer is an elective course at Ferndale High School that was implemented in January of 2014 by FHS teachers Nicole Kata and Sarah Struzik (now Director of Special Education). The program is open to all grade levels. In Peer to Peer, general education students partner with a student with special needs for the semester (or longer), and work with them one hour per day. Peer to Peer students form a bond with their partner, working with them throughout the hour on job skills, life skills, exercise, academic skills, and most importantly, socialization skills. They are also exposed to the different types of disability, learning about each disability through scholarly articles and online modules. Peer to Peer students journal about their experience, learn basic sign language to facilitate communication, attend case conferences to create cohesiveness among peers for the students with special needs, and attend community-based learning experiences with their partner. The students present a project of their choosing that chronicles their experience throughout the semester as well as a reflective essay for their final grade.

Peer to Peer teaches students compassion, patience, gratitude, kindness, thoughtfulness and fosters a sense of community. Students who have never interacted with a student with special needs have a greater respect for their partners, noting their effort,  level of happiness, and persistence in the face of struggles. The Peer to Peer students report feeling changed as a person upon completing the course and empowered to help students with disabilities outside of the classroom and in the community.

The school culture at FHS has changed as a whole thanks to Peer to Peer. Our students with special needs were isolated before, only interacting with each other and staff. They have real friends now, have lunch mates, are invited out to school and non-school events, and feel engaged socially like members of their school community. The high school students are often surpised by how capable, fun, loving, and interesting the special needs students are, and are bringing in friends from other classes and social circles to meet their partners. It’s changed how our school views our special needs students and has changed the view of inclusion we formerly held.

2016 Promising Practices Award Winner

Peer to Peer was honored by when it was selected to receive a 2016 Promising Practices award. Promising Practices recognizes schools, districts, and youth-serving organizations from across the United States, as well as from Canada, China, Colombia, and Mexico. “These great ideas really highlight the creative efforts of amazing teachers all across America --- and the world,” said Dr. Dave Keller, Program Director. “It’s great to recognize what’s going well in the classroom. These practices represent practical, effective ways to develop empathy, enhance conflict resolution skills, and inspire good citizenship.” The winning practices often include activities that build community – within the school and beyond, creative ways to integrate character and academic subjects, effective strategies for developing student leadership, and unique anti-bullying programs.