Bob Kaitz was a first-year teacher at Breck School in 1973 when he launched a partnership with Minnesota’s largest corporations to help students think about life beyond high school.

He brought in speakers, took students to stockholder meetings and started a volunteer mentorship program. Juniors who participated in this “experiential education” tested two grades higher in business education and economics than their peers who pursued a traditional course.

The program held so much promise that Kaitz, who grew up in St. Paul, left teaching and started BestPrep, along with the school’s headmaster and four mentors from each of the original corporate partners: 3M, Cargill, General Mills and Ecolab.

The Brooklyn Park-based nonprofit now has a $2 million budget and is the largest mentorship program in the nation, according to Mentor Minnesota. Last year, it worked with nearly 4,500 students from 87 schools. Almost 60 companies participated.

Q: What are the basics of your eMentors program?

A: It’s an eight-week program that focuses on three outcomes. First, career exploration: using these exchanges to learn about the specific career of the mentor but also what the company has to offer. Second, daily workplace skills: what’s expected in terms of arriving on time, how to dress, working with a team. And finally, just being able to communicate through e-mail and developing writing skills. They e-mail for four weeks and then go to the company to meet their mentor for the one and only time. They take a tour, get a flavor of their workspace. The last four weeks they tackle various specific topics.

 

Q: This fall you launched a separate e-mail mentorship program called Cloud Coach. What’s the focus?

A: It’s a derivative of eMentors, which continues to run. Created in partnership with the Search Institute, Cloud Coach is focused on improving the graduation rate in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, a quarter to a third aren’t graduating. It is designed to strengthen student motivation to succeed in school and beyond. We’re focusing on ninth-graders, because research shows that a student is four times more likely to graduate if they complete ninth-grade coursework on time.

 

Q: What schools are participating?

A: We piloted for two years — first with Como Park High School in St. Paul in partnership with Thomson Reuters and then Washburn High School in Minneapolis. Now we feel like we’re ready to go. We added Minneapolis North this fall and we’ll add Washington Technology High School in St. Paul in January. Minneapolis South will come on in March. We’re aiming to get all 14 high schools, eventually. Seven companies and two private foundations have put in money and volunteers.

 

Q: How does Cloud Coach differ — both for participating companies and the students?

A: One big difference is that rather than having it as an elective, like it is with eMentors, it’s a requirement. The focus is different. The goal is to strengthen student motivation to improve in school and beyond. Our slogan is “Think forward, but act now.” For companies, it’s much more intensive. There are typically 300 to 400 students per grade, so these companies are stepping up with a massive number of volunteers. General Mills and Cargill partnered in the pilot with Minneapolis’ Washburn High School last spring and each had 150 volunteers, so every student had a mentor.

 

Q: What did it take to launch the new program?

A: We were able to take an infrastructure we had with eMentors and developed a new portal, where we can track all the e-mails. We know who has written, we can give the teacher a report, the mentor a report. We also have a filter in there if there’s anything questionable in the dialogue. We’ve invested about $10,000 in the portal. We’ve also developed video training for the mentors.

 

Q: I know it’s early in the launch, but what kind of impact is it having?

A: It doesn’t necessarily tell you about the impact, but 88 percent of students who participated in the pilot thought their mentor cared about them. The second thing we found is we can have some impact on students’ thinking beyond the day. In other words: Try to have a game plan for yourself.

 

Q: How does your program help a ninth-grader think long term?

A: We’re trying to set kids up to eventually develop a résumé. We talk about what they like, what they’re good at and how that can translate to a career. We go through what they can do right now: things such as volunteering, extracurricular activities, networking. But most important is to make sure they’re staying current with classes. Though they may not see a purpose to studying Romeo and Juliet, we might stress that it’s not so much the subject, but it’s the infrastructure of being there, doing your homework, participating, building systems inside yourself that will serve you in other contexts.

 

Q: What value can adults in the business world give to high school students?

A: One of the most important things we’ve learned is that we can help students understand that mistakes are not failure. It seems obvious; we all hate mistakes. But for a lot of students who have had challenges either with their support system at home or at school, their inclination is to stop when they hit a roadblock. So when they dialogue with their mentor, the realize their mentor has had many bumps along the way. That tends to have an impact on the kids.