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Students First pilot project gains momentum

Students and their community coaches celebrated the inaugural year of the Students First initiative during year-end recognition ceremony in May at Bemidji Middle School. At left, Willow Miller, who last year was a seventh-grader, jokes with her coach, Marjorie Giauque. Pictured in the back are student Janis Hawk and her coach, Margaret Burger. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Every student can benefit from having another caring adult in their life.

That is one of the core beliefs behind Students First, a schools initiative that partners students with community coaches.

“It’s really an opportunity for the student to talk about their own talents and individual strengths,” said Lara Gerhardson, coordinator of the program.

In its inaugural year, Students First partnered 88 seventh-graders with 76 community coaches last January as they began getting to know one another and developing relationships.

“It was really exciting to see not only students, but also how the coaches really enjoyed that relationship-building and talking about what the kids enjoyed,” said Kelley Hengel, strengths facilitator with the program.

Gerhardson and Hengel offered an update on the program during Monday’s Bemidji school board meeting.

“This is easily one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved in,” said John Pugleasa, school board member.

The uniqueness of Students First, he said, is that it is a community initiative.

“Our kids deserve for us to dream big for them and this is a big dream,” Pugleasa said. “Our responsibility sometimes is to dream big on their behalf.”

The second year of Students First begins in the schools next week as those same students – now eighth-graders – begin analyzing their strengths and discussing long-term goals.

The coaches will get involved again in October. Eventually, students will work with their coaches to plan their high-school careers and discuss course selections that will best utilize their talents, strengths and help them reach their goals.

Ann Long Voelkner, chairwoman of the school board, said she is a coach and it has been a “truly rewarding” experience.

“Ninety percent of the students mentioned that they would want more time with their coach,” said Gerhardson, noting that coaches, too, made the same request.

Because of that, sessions with coaches are planned to increase from about 25-30 minutes once a month to 45 minutes.

“We’re just really excited to get going again,” she said.

Next January, a second wave of students will be introduced to the program as new seventh-graders will be initiated into Students First.

Eventually, Gerhardson said, the goal is to include all area seventh-graders, but, now, with Students First entering the second of a three-year pilot program, participation is being kept to manageable numbers.

“This program is off to a successful start,” said Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji schools, noting that educators have received support from the county board, school board and local foundations. “All these people want to see this work because this is really important to our future.”

Measuring success

One of the primary measurements for rating the success of Students First will be the Children’s Hope Scale, which examines goal-directed thinking.

Gerhardson said implementation of new programs typically result in an initial decrease in Hope Scale scores.

“I am very happy to note that there already is positive change through the use of our program,” she said.

Before entering Students First, the students’ average Hope Scale score was 27.06; that figure increased to 27.47 by May.

“We had an overwhelmingly positive response (to the program),” she said. “There was a lot of positivity about the coaching sessions.”

Pugleasa applauded the program and said he expected to see it positively impact the district’s ACT and SAT scores.

“I think we’ll see a correlation there,” he said. “I’m excited to see where we go, not just in this year, but in the future.”