A new Bangor program has already matched 500 mentors with students looking for role models

Dellana Kessler, 17, and Juliette Cone, 8, met at one of Angela Okafor’s hair braiding workshops last fall. Soon after, Cone’s mother asked the Bangor student to look after her daughter. She wanted her child, who is biracial, to have another young black woman as a role model.

“Her mom said she could use someone who looks like her,” Kessler said. The two now meet every Wednesday for 40 minutes at Vine Street School, where Cone is a second grader.

Kessler teaches Cone how to knit and crochet, and Cone in turn teaches her mentor how to weave. The two usually work on craft projects together after school until Cone goes to the YMCA, where she waits for a family member to pick her up after work.

Dellana Kessler, a student at Bangor High School, and second grader Juliette Cone share a laugh while doing crafts together after school on Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Kessler is one of 559 people who have signed up to mentor students at the Bangor School Department as part of a program Superintendent James Tager started in the fall.

Although the mentoring program is less than a year old, Bangor school officials hope it will result in higher graduation rates and address the social and emotional challenges faced during a pandemic that has turned children’s lives upside down in the school have occurred.

Tager said he designed the program after a similar approach he took in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he was an educator before becoming superintendent of Bangor Schools last summer.

One of his students grew up in the poorest neighborhood in the city, was raised by a grandmother, and wasn’t expected to finish school, Tager said. He took this student under his wing, making sure she woke up on time for class and attended school regularly. Other teachers followed suit and took on individual students as mentees.

Superintendent James Tager launched a mentorship program at the Bangor Schools Department last fall. Although the mentoring program is less than a year old, Bangor school officials say they hope it will lead to higher graduation rates and help children return to full-time school. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

During this time, the student graduation rate increased from 69 to 83 percent within one year. Tager’s mentee was one of the success stories he attributed to the mentoring program. The high school student enlisted in the US Army after graduating from high school and last saw them in January 2021.

“She’s doing pretty well,” Tager said. “I thought if you could take a student like that, what would that mean for our students here in Bangor?”

Almost 48 per cent of Bangor students are eligible for a free or discounted lunch, compared to 38.3 per cent nationwide. And the department’s four-year graduation rate last spring was 82 percent, four percent lower than the state as a whole, showing the need for some sort of intervention like the mentoring program, Tager said. Schools have also seen an increase in behavioral problems among younger students, he said.

Second grader Juliette Cone (right) helps Dellana Kessler with the final work on the potholder that Kessler is weaving. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The school department is funding the position of coordinator of the mentoring program from the federal COVID aid grant.

The program began with teachers who had the skills to mentor students attending Bangor’s 11 schools, said Julie Kimball, the mentoring coordinator. It has since opened up to external mentors from the community who must pass a background check and are matched to a mentee via a survey.

Kimball maintains a database of interested mentors, including retired educators, current staff and administrators, and outside community members.

The mentoring program ranges from individual consultants to small groups to larger group settings. There is also a third route for students like Kessler who want to mentor younger students.

Second grader Juliette Cone is helping Dellana Kessler finish the potholder she is weaving. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

That path is the fastest-growing part of the program, Kimball said. Older students are attracted to working with younger students.

“You never know what they’re going to do,” Kimball said of the younger kids. “They are a lot of fun, they have a lot of energy and [the older students] just feel like they’re making a difference.”

The program has also attracted people who would not otherwise participate in an educational setting, such as bankers who mentor students who want to learn how to start their own businesses, Kimball said. A high school freshman enrolled in a JROTC program is mentored by the wife of a teacher who is a former Black Hawk pilot.

Eight-year-old Juliette Cone and Dellana Kessler (left), 17, do crafts together after school on Wednesday. Kessler has been Cone’s mentor for five months and the two meet weekly at Vine Street School. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Other mentors help their mentees achieve more personal goals, like opening their own bank account or getting a driver’s license.

Kessler said that in the five months since she met her mentee, Cone’s mother told her that the second grader gets excited every week when they meet. Cone said her younger brother, who is 6, now wants his own mentor.

“I can’t wait for more people to join,” said Kessler.

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