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Groundbreaking program: New collaborative initiative almost ready to be employed in schools

Lara Gerhardson, who was recently hired as the new Students First initiative coordinator, speaks at a reception held Thursday at the Cabin Coffeehouse & Café. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

A new initiative recently called "innovative, ambitious and groundbreaking" is set to launch this spring that would make it possible for area students to reach their goals.

The initiative is called Students First and involves numerous community organizations and leaders striving to help students create their own success plan and have access to a caring adult.

Originating with "Bemidji Leads!" and facilitated by Beltrami Area Service Collaborative and Headwaters Regional Development Commission, the Students First initiative will embark in a trial phase this spring and will pair area 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.

Students involved in the initiative will work with their teachers and a Students First educator who will help students determine and build on their strengths.

For the first year or more, only certain groups of students will be able to participate. Eventually, if the trial period proves effective, meaning enough evidence is collected to prove the program is making a difference, the initiative could include every student in the county.

The ultimate goal of the initiative is to have each student have access to a caring adult and to continue to develop their own success plan throughout their junior high and high school career.

"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," said Rebecca Snyder, student success coordinator with BASC.

The project is not aimed at troubled and dysfunctional students. Students First focuses on students who have potential but need guidance and direction. Their coaches will help them develop short- and long-term individualized plans for success.

Bemidji native Lara Gerhardson was recently hired as the new Students First coordinator. Soon a Students First educator will be hired to work with kids and their teachers in the classroom.

Both Snyder and Gerhardson stressed the community coaches or mentors would not be taking the place of teachers or parents, but will give students extra support with helping them find their strengths.

"We are seeking family involvement. We're not looking to replace parents," Snyder said. "We're going to spend a lot of time making sure parents have the information they need. We think parents will not only feel comfortable but excited their kids will be part of the program."

Planning for such an endeavor did not happen overnight and required a great deal of collaboration and planning, Snyder said.

The Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Bemidji School District, Beltrami County, TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, BASC, HRDC, Blandin Foundation, and George W. Neilson Foundation all contributed funds and resources to move this project forward.

At a gathering last week, Students First "Bemidji Leads!" steward Dave Hengel, who will be taking over as executive director for the Joint Economic Development Commission, said the transformation of the Students First initiative has been "powerful."

"It's been a really energizing project, probably one of the most important things 'Bemidji Leads!' has done since its inception 6 or 7 years ago today," he said.

According to Hengel, the idea for an initiative like Students First stemmed from a discussion "Bemidji Leads!" stewards had on how to grow talent in Bemidji.

"It's really about economic development," Hengel said. "Communities that have found ways to encourage and support and retain their talent have found a way to be successful economically."

Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy called the Students First initiative a "wonderful venture."

"I think we're going to see the community rally around it," he added.

"It's not just a school initiative," Gerhardson said in a previous interview. "It's not just a county initiative. It's a community initiative."

The public can expect to hear more of the Students First initiative as plans continue to be made.