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The power of young minds
High school students team up with elementary students to improve academic and social skills
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Mentors Justyn Duncan, 16, and Angie Quezada, 16, attach post-it notes to their flow chart, currently stuck on the forehead of Braxton Martin, 8. Valeria Jimenez, 8, sits to his left. The mentors are part of a class of psychology/sociology students at East Hall High School working with selected Lula third-graders once a week on academic and learning skills and once a week on communication, problem-solving and citizenship skills. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

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Jennifer Deaton, counselor at Lula Elementary School, talks about the program involving an East Hall High School psychology class working with a Lula third-grade class on social and academic skills.

LULA — East Hall High School psychology students are trying to have a positive effect on a Lula Elementary School third-grade class and maybe enrich their lives in the process.

The two schools share an initiative that has the high school students working with the third-graders on academic and social skills.

And unlike some mentoring efforts, this one doesn’t focus exclusively on students considered "at risk," or those coming from circumstances, such as poverty, that tend to hinder education.

"We also want to raise the scores of our high-achieving kids," said Jennifer Deaton, Lula counselor. "... There are a lot of programs for our at-risk kids — not as many for our average and above-average kids."

The initiative began last year when Leigh Cumiskey, an East Hall counselor, called Deaton to see if the school could use some help in "bridging the achievement gap of some of our kids," Deaton said.

At the time, East Hall was trying to develop a curriculum for a psychology/sociology class. As part of the course’s study of human behavior, mentorship training was provided by the Gainesville-based service and education agency Center Point.

The program’s overall aim is to help students as they prepare to take the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests in April.

The state uses the basic-skills curriculum tests to determine whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress" per the federal accountabililty-based No Child Left Behind Act.

Last year, East Hall students helped English-language learners at Lula "to give them some extra language and vocabulary skills," Deaton said.

Lula decided to focus on third-graders this year because that is the first time when students must pass one or more portions of the test to advance to the next grade.

Third-graders must pass the reading/language arts portion, while fifth- and eighth-graders must pass the reading/language arts and math portions.

This year’s effort began in January, or the start of the spring semester, and with a CRCT "pre-test" to measure the strengths and weaknesses of the third-graders.

The CRCT, set for April 21-25, will show whether improvements were made and in which academic areas.

The high school students work with the third-graders twice a week, with one hour spent on academic skills and the other hour on social skills, Deaton said.

"There is always an academic element to social skills," she added.

This past Thursday, the students worked together to produce a "flow chart," or step-by-step instructions for certain tasks, such as grilling a hamburger and writing to a pen pal.

They broke into groups and, spreading out across the classroom and spilling into the hallway, used yellow adhesive note pads to help draw up their lists.

"These kids — and I think most kids — seem to need that hands-on do-it to understand it," Deaton. "I don’t think you can lecture and it soaks in anymore."

Susan Duckett, who teaches the third-grade class, said she has appreciated the high school visitors.

"The children can’t wait for their mentors to get here," she said.

Valeria Jimenez, 8, said, "We get to do fun things with the high schoolers and ... we do get to talk."

She recalled one exercise where the students drew a roller coaster and wrote descriptions of good things for the coaster’s peaks and bad things for the coaster’s valleys.

For her, the good was getting two pet birds. "And then they ran away, so I put that at the bottom," she said.

Mike Walton, who teaches the psychology class, said he believes the program benefits both sets of students, with relationships developing between the two.

"It’s almost sad when it’s over," he said.

Chris Cornett, 18, an East Hall senior, likened the experience to "being a big brother." He said he enjoys that, especially as he doesn’t have any siblings.

"You can help them and get to know them better," he said.

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