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Editorial: Mentors of achievement

As a founding member of the Minority Student Achievement Network, Amherst Regional High School was excited to finally host an annual conference that drew 250 students from 25 college towns across the country to the University of Massachusetts. And rightfully so. The effort inspired students in a way to please any educator.

The network aims eliminate achievement gaps between students of color and white students. The teens get together each year to participate in workshops and shape plans to help their peers.

The Amherst students came back to school fired up to connect with kids before they hit middle school, which research shows is often where achievement rifts start forming. Their plan, which still needs to be approved by school leaders, is to start small and pinpoint a group of fifth-graders at one of the elementary schools and meet with them one day a week after school. The older students will act as mentors, both academically and socially. They want to be sounding boards and use their influence to guide the younger students away from paths that might hurt them and toward those that will benefit them. They say kids tend to listen to kids.

Two seniors who attended the conference, Malik Ford and Ambyr Braxton, called talks by social justice educator Calvin Terrell of Arizona and Green Party activist Rosa Clemente “life-changing.” They are students who are already motivated to study, take honors courses and strive for college, but they said the speakers woke them up to the importance of defining oneself, rather than letting others do it. That is a powerful message to take to heart. And to pass on.

Shari Abbot, the teacher of the Minority Student Achievement Network class at the high school, said student-to-student mentoring is a strong tool. A program called Strive, which aims at preparing Amherst eighth-grade students of color for high school, has a component in which younger students spend a school day with older ones. She says the middle schoolers look forward to it. They eat up the attention from the older students.

Amherst schools run a slew of programs on all levels to chip away at the gaps between high-risk groups of students and their peers. Family University helps low-income, immigrant families learn ways to help their children in school. A new Family Center at the middle school, a resource for all, focuses on low-income families who may struggle with English and need help getting basic services. Center staff hold play days on Saturdays at apartment complexes to reach out to those who could benefit. Other programs seek to provide extra help to students who are struggling. And there are before- and after-school programs that include academic support.

Ford and Braxton said that while they see racism in Amherst, they are proud of their school. They note Amherst schools encourage students to take on more challenging material. They said students at other schools were impressed by that and intended to bring that idea to their school officials. They are happy to see so many teens like them rejecting the idea that studying hard and getting involved in after-school activities is “acting white.”

“We are actually going to make a difference,” Braxton said. She and Ford bring a vital message to their generation.

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