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Pioneer Editorial: Pilot project aims high

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The Bemidji School Board's resounding "Yes" Monday to the Students First Initiative pilot project proposal sets in motion a bold new experiment in guiding youngsters to meet their potential and develop into competent adults.

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Students First, which is set to begin this summer, puts the Bemidji School District in the forefront of meeting students' needs in many dimensions - academically, socially, emotionally and personally.

Originating with "Bemidji Leads!" and facilitated by Beltrami Area Service Collaborative and Headwaters Regional Development Commission, the Students First Initiative will pair about 75 seventh-graders with adults from the community, who will serve as "life coaches." Students who already have caring adults in their lives can request those persons as their coaches, if the match seems appropriate and the adults go through background checks and Students First training. Students who don't have a connection with a caring adult will make new friends.

The coaches will spend one hour per month face-to-face with their students at the school and communicate with them at other times through a web-based system.

Seventh-graders are at a major transitional time in their lives. Their physical and intellectual maturity is wildly variable from individual to individual. They also usually know what they are not good at, either from their grades or feeling clueless when facing tasks.

The Students First Initiative is designed to focus on what the students are good at, identify their gifts and help them find their place in society. Although one of the goals is to increase high school graduation rates, Students First is not strictly an academic mentoring project. It is more an opportunity for youngsters to see themselves as successful people, connect with school and bond with healthy adults.

The project is also not aimed at troubled and dysfunctional students, who should be served by special education or other interventions. Students First focuses on students in the middle - those between the academic and social stars and the at-risk youth. These students have plenty of potential, but need guidance and direction. Their coaches will help them develop short- and long-term individualized plans for success.

Practical concerns include finding enough volunteers to match with students, and the possibility that someone a student has named as his or her perceived ideal coach declines the invitation.

Rebecca Snyder, student success coordinator with BASC, said the feasibility study identified business owners who offered to give employees time off to volunteer for Students First. According to the study, both the potential coaches and students reported that they want to connect with someone of their same gender.

As for the possibility that a student's dream coach is unavailable, most volunteers would be honored to be chosen by a student. And, as Snyder said, it's possible someone the student isn't acquainted with turns out to be cooler than someone he or she already knows.

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