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In 1983, Joe Clark took over as the principal at Eastside High School in Paterson, N. J. Within two years, the strict educator and former U.S. Army drill sergeant transformed the struggling inner city school into a model institution, ultimately inspiring the film, “Lean on Me.”

While Bobby Lidell, the Forest Park Middle School Behavior Interventionist, will never be confused with “Crazy Joe,” who was portrayed in the film as carrying a bat around Eastside, Lidell’s fundamental goal of helping kids does draw parallels between the two.

In fact, 60 students at Forest Park Middle School are practicing their own “lean on me” brand of education via Lidell’s Peer Mentor-Mentee Program. Focusing on the objectives of curbing anti-social behavior while developing study skills, the program essentially revolves around selecting 30 mentors to support 30 mentees with their school work.

After discussions with District 91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo and Forest Park Middle School Principal Karen Bukowski, Lidell initiated the program in January.

“We have found that often mentees are not as involved in clubs or sports at school. They are kids that might fall behind in school and may not even be visible at times. Eighty percent of [missed assignments] are from mentees. The problem is not a lack of intelligence; they are just not keeping up with their work.”

The mentors must maintain a 2.5 grade point average and be National Junior Honor Society members. On an intangible level, they also must demonstrate a caring, responsible approach towards working with their peers.

Barely four months in, the program is already making significant progress as highlighted by a few remarkable academic comebacks.

“We have one student who went from making a D or F in math to earning an A within the last six weeks” Lidell said. “Parents or teachers could not get through to that student. It took a peer to really help that person.”

While there may be assorted reasons for success – the program still has to work out some kinks – but several students unanimously agreed that the program works because they feel a tremendous comfort level working with their friends.

“It’s been good and everything has been real cool,” sixth-grader and mentee Justin Knight said. “I’ve known [my mentor] Jessica Carrera since kindergarten so it’s been easy working with her. My study habits weren’t that good, but working with her has brought my grades up to an outstanding level. You can express yourself more in the process of what you’re doing.”

Knight, who ran for school president, has joined Carrera as one of the 30 educational tag teams within the program.

“I enjoy helping others, and we all should have the opportunity to achieve,” Carrera, who has been accepted at Immaculate Conception High School, said. “It has been easy to work with Justin because I know him, what he likes, and his study habits. I think we do a good job working together. I hope that we both move ahead and not behind.”

Program participants Brandon Blaylock, Taylor Ward, Samarria Adams, Ashley Wilson, DeAndre Woods, David Burnett, Carrera and Knight spoke candidly about the program. Common sentiments on its effectiveness revolved around a comfortable, fun way of learning, better grades, and more involvement within the school.

According to Lidell, the criteria for measuring the mentees’ success are a good attitude and work level, improved grades and no reports from teachers that the kids are skipping assignments. For their part, the mentors must remain committed to helping their partners and always respect their confidentiality.

“A team has a shared goal,” Lidell said. “These kids talk on the phone, go on Myspace and they meet during the week to talk about the mentees’ assignment notebook.”

As one incentive, Lidell’s program includes gift certificate rewards to Portillo’s, McDonald’s and Taco Bell for the top three teams with the fewest missed assignments and most significant grade improvement. More importantly, the mentors and mentees often benefit by increasing their self esteem and accountability, while truly making a difference in their school.

“The program sounded like a good thing, but I was a little nervous about it at first,” said Blaylock, a sixth-grade mentor. “You should help someone anytime you have a chance. My mentee and I are working on forming confidence and paying attention.”

The kids’ improved attention, behavior and performance certainly has resonated with the teachers at the school as well. They provide feedback to Lidell on a weekly basis about the students’ classroom performance.

Plans are being made to implement the program for the entire 2008-2009 school year.

“It’s nice because it helps us keep track of the students a little better,” said seventh-grade social studies teacher Dan Staser. “I know Mr. Lidell is just implementing the program, so we’re still seeing what works best, but it helps kids set goals and stay organized. The students are more aware of how their homework affects their grades.”

For the members of the program, they gave out some extra credit of their own to Lidell.

“Mr. Lidell has been a great influence,” Taylor said. “I feel like I can talk to him about anything. He’s like a second dad for me.”