DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Morgan Weber sat at a table in the library of Audubon Elementary School in Dubuque on Monday afternoon, watching as fourth-grader Kimmie Crump carefully moved her game piece along the Chutes and Ladders board.

“Did you land on a slide?” Weber asked, pointing to the space where Kimmie’s marker had ended.

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Kimmie, 9, giggling as she moved the small cardboard figure down to a lower square.

Weber, a social media manager with Cottingham & Butler in Dubuque, is Kimmie’s mentor through a Dubuque Community School District program that pairs students with supportive adults for regular meetings.

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports the program experienced substantial growth this fall, as Weber is one of 90 new mentors who were trained and began meeting with students since the start of the school year. District leaders have their sights set on additional growth, with an emphasis on recruiting diverse mentors.

“The research is there that (mentoring) is one of the best things we can do for students’ social-emotional learning,” said Audubon Principal Ed Glaser. “I see it have a huge impact on the student, and it’s typically immediate.”

The school district has maintained a volunteer mentorship program for many years, according to Shirley Horstman, executive director of student services. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person mentoring was halted because schools did not permit visitors to enter buildings, in order to combat the spread of the virus.

Last fall, the district relaunched its mentoring program and, in the process, officials committed to revamping and expanding it, Horstman said.

This year, new mentors were recruited from multiple area employers that have existing business partnerships with the district, including McGraw Hill, Kunkel & Associates, John Deere Dubuque Works, Emmaus Bible College, University of Dubuque and Loras College.

Additionally, a new partnership with Cottingham & Butler led to 30 new mentors, including Weber. After receiving training from district representatives and Audubon staff, she now spends her lunch hour with Kimmie every Monday.

“I love the impact I feel like I’m making,” Weber said. “Really, my job is to make connections and hang out with Kimmie and play games, so it’s pretty easy to do.”

Kimmie said she looks forward to the meetings and enjoys telling Weber about the things she learns in class or how life is going outside of school.

“I talk about my family and things at home, and sometimes, she can relate to that,” Kimmie said.

Horstman said establishing a “trusting, healthy relationship” in which students feel comfortable sharing their challenges and triumphs with a mentor is one of the program’s main goals.

“A mentor can empower the student to talk about what are some current issues and help them to develop really positive coping strategies,” she said. “… We encourage our mentors to actively listen to the student, offer support and try to figure out the strengths of the student so they can really build on that.”

As of late October, the district had trained 90 new mentors. About 85 mentors had returned from the prior year to mentor the same student, and Horstman said the district has added several new mentors each week, meaning the total number of mentors in the district tops 180.

Glaser said guidance counselors work with staff and administrators to decide which students receive mentors. Sometimes, a family will request a mentor for their student, which the school does its best to provide, although “the need outpaces the availability” of mentors, he said.

Now, district administrators are beginning to investigate how to recruit a more racially and culturally diverse group of mentors. Members of Dubuque Black Men Coalition are active mentors and volunteers in the district’s schools, and Horstman said officials also want to find more Black female mentors, along with mentors from the Hispanic and Marshallese communities.

“We’re really looking at our populations of students and then trying to look at the background demographics of our current mentors to see if we can diversify who is coming into our schools,” she said. “We want the mentors to be reflective of the populations we have in our schools.”