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Students First wraps up inaugural year

Mentor Claude Sand high-fives his seventh-grade counterpart Cody Roder at the closing ceremony of the Students First program Wednesday morning. The program with seventh-grade students from Bemidji Middle School and TrekNorth Junior High School paired coaches with students to help them achieve goals. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - A program aimed at providing area seventh-grade students with success coaches to help them reach their goals proved to do more than that in its inaugural year.

Students First, an initiative started by Bemidji Leads!, wrapped up its first year Wednesday with a year-end recognition event at Bemidji Middle School.

The recognition event honored the 90 seventh-graders from BMS and TrekNorth Junior High School who were selected to participate in the program and their success coaches, all of whom are members of the community.

The program is the first of its kind anywhere in the country, Jim Bensen of Bemidji Leads! said.

"You are on the front end of something no one in the country has ever done before," Bensen told the students in his remarks. "The community isn't just giving back to you; you're giving back to the community by helping the coaches think young again."

Program participant Kendra Haugen, a TrekNorth seventh-grader, said Students First helped her learn to be herself.

"I had a low self-confidence before Students First," Haugen said. "It's lifted now thanks to Toni (Bratager, her coach). She's been so supportive of me."

Meeting Haugen helped Bratager, an obstetrics/pediatrics secretary at Sanford Health, learn more about herself, she said.

"It's helped me reconnect with my own teenage experience and be able to offer her advice when she needs it," Bratager said. "My goal is to just always be supportive to her and encourage her to have fun and be herself."

Kelly Hengel, Students First's strengths educator, said she's proud of how the students have embraced the program.

"They've given the program so much energy and support," Hengel said. "They've loved the coaching, and it's helped them meet new people and has been a great relationship-building tool."

When Haugen was selected for the program, certain students were called out of their classrooms to another room, she said.

"I didn't know what was going on or what it was, but it was a lot of fun," Haugen said. "They were playing music, and it got me excited for it."

Bratager said she received an email at work asking for coaches.

"It seemed cool and was something I would have liked to have when I was this age," Bratager said.

The goal for the 2012-13 school year is to carry this group of students over and start a new group of seventh-graders, Hengel said.

"The plan is for these students to stay with the program through their senior year of high school, even if there are coach changes," Hengel said. "But we're also hoping to expand each year by adding a new group of seventh-graders."