Learning by doing

Charter School students learn from the community in the school’s mentorship program.


‘It takes a village” might sound a little clichéd, but it’s what comes to mind when learning about the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) mentorship program. Twenty-two ninth- and tenth-grade students work one-on-one with mentors for two hours every Wednesday. The program stalled when COVID hit, but Peter Steedman, MVPCS director, says, “Now it’s grown, and is very vibrant.” He is rightfully proud of the caliber of mentors working with the students, and acknowledges the immense generosity of the Island community.

The variety of the subjects reflects the breadth of talent here on the Island. The partnerships are impressive, and include student Jack Baer, who is learning sculpture from Barney Zeitz; the two have become close. Bangii-Kai Bettencourt is learning about ancient grains and native species from Rebecca Gilbert at Native Earth Teaching Farm. Gabrielle Lino is gaining knowledge about dog training from Karen Ogden. The West Tisbury Fire Station welcomed them into its conference room because the Charter School had no space, and Lino plans to use the strategies with her own pooch. Kali Spain is learning about agriculture, including when to plant medicinals, from Simon Athearn at Morning Glory Farm. Phoebe Nichols is baking family recipes, and inheriting techniques and traditions. Other students are working with mentors at the Edgartown library, Garden Gate preschool, and even across the waters at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “There’s not one mentorship I wouldn’t want to be a part of,” mentorship coordinator Moira Silva says. “They are so amazing. The idea is that the classroom walls are porous.”

Silva works to ensure the partnerships are strong and meaningful, and that the kids and mentors are well-supported. “In helping to find mentors, it’s not just matching interests but assessing if the personalities will go together well. Then I work with the kids to make sure it’s a learning experience, and deepening it,” she says. Silva also helps students with the critical workplace readiness skill of learning how to communicate, such as giving at least 24 hours’ notice for canceling, or how to talk with their mentor if the youth is feeling intimidated. “If a kid isn’t enjoying the mentorship, I sit with them and figure out why not. It might be that they don’t know how to speak to the person, and they come up with a strategy, or we set a goal and see what happens over the next few sessions.”

Some students come to her knowing what they want to learn, and Silva then tries to find a mentor. But there are lessons, too, if there isn’t anyone to fit the bill exactly, and they end up paired with someone in a different field. “Some kids get really stuck, such as I only want to learn how to make soufflés. Then maybe we can’t find anybody for soufflés, and it’s good because it makes them go out of their comfort zone,” Silva comments. Once the match is made, students set goals, document their work, and write reflections to help them digest their experiences more deeply.

Sophomore Koko Capeace, who currently works with Jess Kramer at Hawkhouse jewelry, and is about to explore ceramics, says, “With mentorship, you help with the person’s business, and you also get to do your passion project.” Last year, she worked with Randi Sylvia and Marlene DiStephano, who own Kenworthy Design. “They were teaching me pattern making, and how to use one. I would bring in a lot of fabrics that I would thrift, or old sheets or old clothing I could upcycle and use for projects. They gave me the opportunity to do my own creative endeavor, showed me how to do it, and then let me take the reins, and guided me in the process. The mentors give their time and supplies, so you ask a lot of them, but they really want to help you find what you like to do.”

“Mentorship has given us such an opportunity to see the fields we’re interested in,” Capeace continues. “Last year, I thought, ‘If I really like fashion and I really like sewing, what does that mean if that were my job?’ You get to do the work, and ask, ‘Do I like this or don’t I?’ So not only is it something to work on during school hours, but you can find what job you want in the future, or maybe a new passion. I have never done ceramics, but I’m excited to try something I haven’t done before. Who knows, maybe that’s something I will really like and want to go forward with.”

“Mentorship,” Silva says, “brings a creative time while trying to find what you want to do with your future. Students are thinking about careers they didn’t know about, but now, because of these relationships, they think, ‘Oh, I could do that. I had no idea.’ But as good as it is to get kids to think about careers, I think it’s great that some of these will just be passions, a special thing that an adult took the time to teach you. These are valuable for a happy, healthy life.”

Silva explains that the vibrant program pushes students out of their comfort zone. “We are encouraging them to understand that the Island is their classroom. And it’s not about going there and serving time, but about building relationships with these community members. We live in a really special place, and these community partnerships have come about through experts in their field who are willing to give their time in their busy, busy lives for the development of young people. I can’t thank them enough for the impact they have made.”