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High school starts fresh

The small city that is South Kitsap High School begins classes today, lugging the same baggage most public schools across the country are grappling with this year — a mix that’s especially heavy on the bad news, light on the good.

But while they’re still stinging from lackluster WASL scores and the loss of at least one longstanding program, school leaders have firmly set their sights on the future — namely those new sophomores marching up the walk.

To help ensure those 10th graders’ success, the school’s principal and several determined teachers revived a mentoring program that pairs the fresh faces with their older — and hopefully wiser — peers.

Principal David Colombini said he knows Ignite Mentoring had some problems its first year at South Kitsap, but he believes strongly in its potential.

“In any new program, there are twists and turns,” he said, “but we feel like it’s a valuable program for the kids personally and academically, and it deserves another chance.”

Colombini decided to launch the program — after hearing about it from a fellow high school principal in Tacoma — last year to improve his students school work and grades, but above all else to nurture an “an improved school environment.”

“I want our kids to feel connected,” Colombini said. “I’ve read studies that claim that students who are not involved in any extracurricular activities have a hard time succeeding in school.”

Eighteen-year-old Jaymi Orser, a 2003 grad who helped run the program last year as a senior, said although the program suffered from dwindling enthusiasm and a lack of funds, she agreed with Colombini that the program was well worth the effort required.

“I only wish the enthusiasm and motivation we had when we started had continued,” Orser said, explaining that although 100 mentors began the program, by the end of the year only 60 remained.

However, she still considers the program a success.

“If it changed just one of the sophomores, I would consider that successful,” she said. “And it did — one mentee quit drugs, and one girl raised her grades significantly, from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s.”

The best thing about the program, Orser said, was “finally students were helping other students, rather than the staff.”

Orser said many times students may be hesitant to approach staff members with their personal problems. She said she was glad to see some mentees and mentors forming strong bonds, meeting many times outside of school in study groups. During those meetings, the kids would discuss both academics and other areas of their lives.

Orser said one of the significant changes to the program this year will be where and when the students meet. Last year, mentors met with the younger students during the sophomores’ English classes for half hour sessions once a month.

However, much of the staff involved had some frustrations with the use of class time, said math teacher Jen Nacke, who will be continuing to run the program with curriculum specialist Tess Danubio.

“The staff had some issues with the students being taken out of class,” Nacke said, explaining that this year the biology department offered to host the mentor meetings during their classes. “I’m also working really hard to see that mentors will not be pulled out of the same class each time.”

Nacke said she and other program leaders made sure to start early this year, especially holding training sessions — which also took a lot of class time — and other preparations before school started.

“We implemented (the program) a little late last time,” she said. “We learned we need to start a little earlier.”

Nacke said she was also able to handpick her mentors this year, carefully choosing kids she knew to be serious and motivated.

“Each of these kids have come in to talk to me, and we’re being really strict on academic training,” she said. “Last year, they were kind of plopped in my lap.”

Colombini agreed, explaining that for the program to be successful you need more than just mentors —you need good mentors.

“It’s important to get kids that want to be mentors, those that are really going to sacrifice,” he said.

Nacke said so far there are enough mentors to cover a little more than half of the class, and hopefully by the end of the year there will be enough upperclassmen for all the sophomores.

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