THE PANDEMIC has taken a terrible toll on school children, costing them not just in lost time learning, but in the socialization skills necessary to succeed. For students of color, already facing serious challenges in often-underfunded school districts, the pandemic has added even more hurdles between them and college.

The pandemic has hit teachers hard, too. Boston has 800 teacher and substitute vacancies, according to The Boston Globe. The number of teacher-training students has plummeted, and Massachusetts no longer has nearly enough guidance counselors–so crucial in helping students who are the first in their families to apply for college. And those students of color who do overcome the obstacles to get the grades, manage the applications, and find the money for higher education are still more likely to leave college in far greater numbers than their white peers during freshman year.

What turns this around? There is no single answer, but we know what can make a difference.

African American and Hispanic students need to see that people who look and sound like them, who come from their neighborhoods, and who share their cultures can succeed and thrive. And they need mentors—especially now, in overwhelmed school districts with few guidance counselors and stressed teachers. Those mentors, whenever possible, should be students who have come from backgrounds like their own—and now have come back to help lift up members of their community. And in turn, these mentors get the kind of experience that leads them to become teachers.

How do we know this works? Because we are making it work right now, in inner-city schools in Massachusetts, at Coaching4Change.

After I graduated from Stonehill College, I spent four years in finance but felt something was missing. At Smith College, pursuing my master’s degree in teaching, I conceived of a program that would reach inner-city children early, in middle school, and use college students like the ones I’d met in Northampton who could show those young children that you can be Black, or Hispanic, or come from a poor background, and you can go to college and you can succeed.

Ten years later, Coaching4Change has connected more than 600 college and high school students with 10,000 middle school students. We have witnessed a rise in math and verbal scores and significant declines in disciplinary actions for children enrolled in the program. And we have seen time after time mentors who then go on to become educators/teachers themselves.

A Gallup Poll showed that students who are mentored–who have someone to regularly talk to and run problems by such as a counselor, teacher, or another involved adult–are more likely to thrive in their lives than those without mentors. Yet the chances for those relationships have declined, especially during the pandemic when schools are struggling to keep and hire teachers and guidance counselors.

Coaching4Change is filling that gap.

Coaching4Change currently has 120 college students working with 1,500 students in fourth through ninth grades in schools such as those in Fall River and Taunton. Mentors see the kids twice a week in school and after school for an average of 10 hours a week. The college students serve as assistants in the classroom, “lunch buddies” chatting with students during lunch, and “recess pals” during breaks. They encourage, listen, and connect.

Nelissa is one of those mentors. She came to us from Bridgewater State University and began mentoring at Morton Middle School in Fall River, where she worked with middle school students who were devastated by the pandemic. She told us these children needed all the additional attention they could get. They had left school as third-graders when the pandemic hit and when they returned as fifth-graders they were struggling academically and socially. In many ways, they were developmentally a grade or two behind where they should be.

What they got from Nelissa was one-on-one help during a traumatic time. What Nelissa got? She found her purpose in making a difference. “I want to pursue this,” she said. “I want to be a teacher.”

We are not helping in the traditional sense. We are not helping with SAT prep or financial aid or regular coursework. But by putting middle schoolers in touch with older students who relate to them, work with them, and show them what is possible, we are helping bridge the gap to success.

Marquis Taylor grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He started C4C in Taunton while in graduate school.