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Willmar Middle School developing mentoring program that aims to keep students in school

Juan Soto, 11, left, and Tyler Steen discuss how having an in-school mentor this year has influenced Soto’s work and performance at Willmar Middle School. Steen is part of the Check and Connect program that matches volunteer mentors from the Middle School’s staff with students who may need a little guidance in their lives. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR - Willmar Middle School has a program that hopes to catch kids before they fall through the cracks and head toward dropping out of school. Check and Connect matches volunteer mentors from the school’s staff with kids who seem to need a little guidance in their lives. The program isn’t for kids who are in trouble all the time. In fact, some of those chosen for the program aren’t troublemakers at all.

Many are the quiet kids who blend in with the crowd and don’t let people see if they’re struggling.

“It’s a very supportive program,” said Chelsea Brown, a seventh-grade communications teacher and one of the organizers of the program. The ultimate goal is to help students build connections to school.

“The teachers came together and talked about students that may need some extra support,” Brown said. “We formulated a list of students we thought would benefit.”

Check and Connect started in the fall with a goal of finding 20 volunteer mentors from the staff. So far, 47 teachers and other staff members have signed up. Students participate with their parents’ permission. The mentoring takes place during the school day, either before classes or at lunchtime, whenever the mentor and student can find the time, Brown said.

Mentors might talk to students about getting their homework done, help them clean out their lockers to find missing assignments or talk about ways to get to school on time. Sometimes, they just talk about things going on in a student’s life.

Mentors involved in the program said they try to bring up things like responsibility, setting goals and planning for the future.

The program works hand in hand with another Middle School program, ICU, which uses a school-wide database to keep tabs on homework assignments and provide assistance to kids with missing assignments. Many students in Check and Connect have at least a few things on the ICU list, too.

The range of the relationship depends on the mentors and students. The program’s goal is to have them meet at least once a week, but some talk nearly every day. The mentors gather once a month.

So far, the students seem to like it.

Elijah Holland, 13, an eighth-grader, said he asked his mentor, Assistant Principal Beckie Simenson, to help him study geography. They talk about grades, the ICU and homework, he said.

Simenson also mentors seventh-grader Angela Charqueno, 12. Her biggest program was “tardies,” she said with a sheepish smile. Her family has to get kids to multiple schools, she said, and she was often late. Simenson intervened to find a way for her to ride a bus.

Simenson said she enjoys making the effort to talk to those students around school. “When you see them, they seem happier,” she said.

 “I’ve got a lot more of my work in, and I’m a lot more organized,” Elijah said. Angela agreed.

Physical education teachers Tyler Steen meets with Juan Soto, 11, a sixth-grader, every morning. A challenge for Juan is “allowing people to help him,” he said. “I don’t think Juan asks for help.” Juan nodded when asked if things had been going better lately.

They meet almost every morning before school. “He’s helped me with homework and get stuff in,” Juan said. Sometimes they just talk about life, too.

For the student she mentors, “It helps to know an adult at school really cares for her,” said Gretchen Baumgarn, the school’s dean of students. “She needs a person to bring her out.”

For Danny Salinas, 13, a seventh-grader, his relationship with special education teacher Matt Foss helps relieve stress in his life. When they get together, they talk about how his day is going, his grades and homework on the ICU list, he said.

Danny is not a special ed student, and Foss said he probably wouldn’t have met him without Check and Connect. That’s part of the reason he volunteered for the program, as well as his interest in helping young people.

“There are people all of us could name who helped us,” said Matt Foss. “For me, it’s a way of giving back.”

Teachers involved in the program said they don’t always have an immediate connection with their students. The conversations are about ICU and homework at first. It can take a while before students open up about other things in their life that may interfere with their schoolwork.

Steen said the stories he hears at mentors’ gatherings have “really opened my eyes to what kids are going through.”

Pam Kohls, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, said teachers see a lot of kids who are struggling. “We really want to help them,” she said, and Check and Connect provides a framework for that.

“It’s really important they feel connected to school,” she said, and she tries to touch base with kids who aren’t in the program, too. “Hopefully, they can come to you if they have questions.”

Noelle Green, a sixth-grade science teacher, said her student was “closed off” at first, and it was rewarding to see her begin to open up after their conversations.

“It’s changed my approach to teaching a little,” Green said.

Brown said she feels she’s built a good relationship with the student she mentors and has seen him grow. They started out with a long ICU list of missing work, and they used highlighters to make a plan to tackle it.

“Last week, he asked if I had information about how he could try out for the play,” she said, something he may not have considered before.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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