Lexington, Virginia • February 3, 2011
Almost three dozen Washington and Lee University students are serving this year as mentors in a new program that aims to keep local students on track to graduate from high school.
NEXT, an innovative new after-school program, was designed specifically for Maury River Middle School and is funded by a $159,000 annual 21st Century federal grant, renewable after three years. Rockbridge County schools applied for the grant in partnership with Washington and Lee.
Introduced this past October, NEXT aims to improve students' test scores and high school graduation rate. It operates for two hours after school Monday through Thursday for sixth- to eighth- grade students. Of the more than 200 students in those grades at Maury River, 83 have voluntarily enrolled so far.
"It's a lot to ask of the students, but they're enjoying it," said Paige Crawford, the NEXT coordinator who is employed by Rockbridge County Schools. "We want them to see themselves in a successful and happy future and expose them to new experiences so they can discover their hidden interests and strengths."
In designing the program, Crawford incorporated ideas from the W&L students who were going to serve with mentors. "I met with five W&L students at the beginning, and they helped me think through and brainstorm how they might be involved," she said. "They've been very consistent and helpful and really passionate about the program. When they walk into the room the kids run up to them and hug them. They are so excited to see them. I have 28 mentors from W&L right now with at least six more about to join."
"Relationship-building is a big priority. We want students to connect with people who take a personal interest in them and are willing to serve as role models," said Crawford.
Joseph Landry, a sophomore history major at W&L, said he has been involved as a NEXT mentor twice a week from the beginning of the school year. "We're each assigned to a group of students. and I try to make sure I get to know each of them on a personal level so I can connect with them and be an effective mentor," he said. "There's a certain level of excitement in the NEXT program that is unparalleled with other programs I've seen. We're getting them to do something that's fun."
W&L senior Abigail Dean is the engine that drives the NEXT program from the W&L side. She is a member of the Burish Intern Program that places a W&L student volunteer coordinator in each of the Rockbridge County schools. The interns work at the schools to identify areas where volunteers are needed and then recruit their fellow W&L students to volunteer. "With the NEXT program, we want to get the students excited about the prospect of going on to high school and beyond," she said. "These students need consistency, positive role models and attention. We get the opportunity to be there for them, to show them that they can do more and that they have opportunities."
At the beginning of each session, students are divided into three groups and take turns doing homework or attending two week-long workshops, with a different focus each week.
Some of the workshops take place at Rockbridge County High School, where high school teachers introduce the students to electives they will be able to take in high school. Subjects include horticulture, art, cooking, auto technology, technical drawing, band, agriculture, forensic science and woodworking.
For example, Tate Jarvis, an electronics technology teacher, ran a workshop on how to construct a night light to introduce students to basic electronic components, symbols and equipment. "I think the NEXT program is important," he said. "It exposes students to all the elective programs at the high school and that will inform their decision about what elective courses to take when they come here and hopefully make them more successful in those courses."
Michele Cash, an eighth grader who has a perfect attendance record in the NEXT program, said she most enjoyed a woodworking workshop. "We got to build a bench with screws and a screwdriver and I love working with wood," she said. "I think this will help me stay in high school because all the activities we've done have been fun."
Crawford said that her aim is for all the NEXT students to have experienced every available high school elective by the end of the school year. "I hope they'll find two or three areas where they have hidden interests or talents," she said. "Typically, these students don't have the opportunity to experience the diversity of educational opportunity available to them until they're in ninth grade. At that point they have to choose two electives but they don't really know what they entail. These students will actually know what they can do and see themselves taking those classes."
The weeks when students are not at the high school, Crawford invites various community organizations to run workshops. "I call those workshops the enrichment and exposure part of the NEXT program," she said. "I want to enlighten the students to all the possibilities out there."
For example, Fine Arts in Rockbridge taught workshops on dancing, writing and pottery. Other workshops included music, drama and chess. The YMCA also conducted workshops on fitness, body awareness, cardiovascular strength building and how to use fitness equipment. "We interviewed parents when we designed this program and one of things they wanted was for students to be healthier and more active. That was a large component when we applied for the grant" said Crawford.
Another emphasis of the NEXT program is community service. "About once a month I try to add a community service project into the schedule," she said. "So the kids have mulched and aerated the ground at Boxerwood Gardens and decorated the recycling bus and grounds at the recycling center.