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Project in the works to pair Bemidji students with community mentors

From left, Beltrami County Auditor/Treasurer Kay Mack, Bemidji School District Superintendent Jim Hess and Beltrami Area Service Collaborative Student Success Coordinator Rebecca Snyder sit in a meeting Wednesday as members of an advisory committee that oversees the Students First Initiative. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

If every student could have a life coach, what would happen for the community?

"It would help grow talent," said Dave Hengel, director of community stewardship development for the Headwaters Regional Development Commission.

The HRDC, along with the Beltrami Area Service Collaborative, are about to unveil the Students First Initiative, a program which would pair area seventh-graders with adults from the community to serve as mentors.

"Research is showing kids don't have other caring adults in their life," said Wendy Thompson, a private consultant who is working with the HRDC and BASC. "That's a huge developmental asset that kids need in order to be successful in the world. This mentorship program won't take the place of parents, but it will give them another supportive adult who cares."

Hengel said the idea to have a community mentorship program started with the "Bemidji Leads!" community stewards. One of the priorities of the group is to grow, retain and attract talent in the community.

"Economic development in general has become more about talent than it has been about businesses," Hengel said. "Communities that are able to grow, attract and retain talented people are the ones that are succeeding in economics."

A few years ago, the BASC was interested in ideas that would raise the graduate rates of students and increase student success within the community.

"This (Students First) project was developing something with the community that would be aimed right at those goals," said Rebecca Snyder, the student success coordinator for the BASC. "It was something our board was really interested in."

The pilot year of Students First is expected to start next year. This spring, 75 students from Bemidji Middle School and TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School will be asked to participate in the program. Two fulltime staff members will be hired to head the imitative.

"When we go with the pilot project, we're going to make sure it's a representative group," Snyder said. "We want to get a good idea of how this will improve performances on all levels."

By next fall, as eighth-graders, the students will take an assessment which will identify their strengths.

"The reason we're incorporating strength-finding is because we feel it will increase effectiveness," Snyder said. "Strength-based research shows people working in their strengths are seven times more effective. It will focus on what's right with kids and will build on those."

Each student will then be paired with a member of the community, who will become their "coach." Students will meet face-to-face with their coach at least once a month and communicate at least a week by e-mail. Coaches will help students develop an individualized success plan and goals for their future. Students will build on their success plan yearly until they graduate from high school.

The Students First staff members will match each student with a coach, coordinate background checks, screen coaches, conduct ongoing program evaluations, monitor the students' progress, maintain a Students First website and communicate with parents on their students' success plan.

"We're working very carefully with research-based, proven strength-finding programming," Snyder said. "We intend to measure results to be effective and to make any changes we need to in order to improve the program's effectiveness."

Funding for the pilot project has been committed by the HRDC, the Bemidji School District and the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. Hengel said he hopes the initiative will receive enough funding for three years, enough time to measure the program's effectiveness. But so far, the project remains unfunded.

Thompson said the initiative is a community effort, not a school program. But she said she hopes the initiative will increase graduation rates and help more students pursue post-high school training or college degrees. The Bemidji School District's superintendent, middle school and high school principals and the director of TrekNorth have attended meetings with "Bemidji Leads!" stewards to discuss the initiative.

Eventually, Hengel said, he hopes seventh-graders from every school in Bemidji will participate in the mentorship program, but it depends on funding and collaboration efforts.

Some of the challenges will be recruiting adult volunteers, obtaining sufficient buy-in from students and parents and finding funding to sustain the program.

Despite these challenges, Hengel, Thompson and Snyder agreed they hoped to see this idea turn into a reality.

Thompson said she wasn't aware of any other community in northern Minnesota that has developed community a mentorship program of this magnitude.

"I think we're breaking some new ground here in the type of collaboration," Thompson said. "The people sitting around the table - the county, the school district, nonprofits and youth-serving organizations - these people are really committed and wise about how to work some of those challenges. I've been impressed.

"What's good for the individual is good for the community," Thompson added.

For more information about the Students First Initiative contact Dave Hengel by calling 333-6533 or by e-mailing him at