November 2011

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In a Denver high school comprised entirely of high-risk teens, attendance and graduation rates are rising and the students are being commended for responsible decision making skills. So what is going on?

Five years ago, Colorado High School Charter (CHSC) in Denver was looking for ways to improve student attendance and graduation rates — two barometers of success for a school whose students face daunting odds for academic achievement. At CHSC, 80 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunches; 95 percent of students come from single parent households or live with a non-custodial parent; and 100 percent of the students need help to graduate from high school.

CHSC teacher Dell Brooks integrated the “Ten Wise Ways” from the BrainWise Program into his daily classes, and he began to see positive results. The key, according to Brooks, is that, “BrainWise gives me tools to teach these young people about the brain, helping them learn skills to stop and take responsibility for their behaviors.”

During the 2010-2011 school year, a grant from the Coors Foundation allowed BrainWise to expand the curriculum to match CHSC students with mentors who were BrainWise-trained Rotarians and volunteers. The mentoring program was based on a military study that linked receipt of “caring letters” to a marked decline in the suicide rate of military personnel who had been hospitalized or treated for attempted suicide. Seeing the positive effect on the soldiers of simple letters that showed someone cared inspired BrainWise founder and director Dr. Patricia Gorman Barry to try something similar. She developed a mentorship program to connect CHSC students with local business leaders, who would send text messages supporting the students’ positive choices and reinforcing the BrainWise lessons they learned in school.

In addition to the weekly text messages, volunteer mentors arranged a visit with their students at the school. The meetings provided a more personalized opportunity to encourage the student’s progress and provide perspective on the importance of attending school and achieving a high school diploma. The mentors, including an engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, an executive at Merrill Lynch, and a nursing professor from Yale University, were interested in helping students, but had very limited time for volunteering.

“Texting is popular with young people and doesn’t take that much time, so it is using technology as another part of a student’s Constellation of Support,” Dr. Barry said. As a further support to both sides, each student was assigned two mentors, ensuring that at least one would be able to attend the monthly visit and provide much-needed consistency for the high-risk teens.

The success of the mentoring program in its first year has resulted in new funding for the 2011-2012 school year through Vanguard Trust. For a CHSC student who needs help to graduate, renewal of the program is an important key to the future.