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Program pairs teachers, children for after-school bonding

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Making a connection: First-grade teacher Greg Vogel serves as a 'co-pilot' to Blayne Hedges, 7, at the first after-school meeting of the mentor program at J.B. Stephens Elementary School.   (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Making a connection: First-grade teacher Greg Vogel serves as a 'co-pilot' to Blayne Hedges, 7, at the first after-school meeting of the mentor program at J.B. Stephens Elementary School. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — When Shannah and Jadon Brinley came home, begging to participate in the J.B. Stephens Elementary Pilot/Co-Pilot Program, their parents just couldn’t say no.

The 7-year-old twins didn’t know all the details, just that they’d been specially picked for the program by their teachers.

The Pilot/Co-Pilot Program pairs students with a teacher who will encourage them both during and outside of school.

The idea is that the children – there are 14 participating this year – are in the pilot’s seat, and the teachers act as helpful guides along the way.

The twins’ father, Larry Brinley, said he and his wife didn’t hesitate to let the kids participate when they received a note from the school.

“They were just really excited about the process,” Brinley said. “And you read over it and say, ‘How can this be bad?’ It’s always nice to be seen as special by yet another adult.”

Teachers nominate one student from their class for participation in the program. A student can be selected for a number of reasons.

Whether they’re struggling at school, have been battling behavior issues or are just going through a rough time at home, their “co-pilot” is there to help them see it through.

The group gets together once per month, sometimes for snacks and a fun activity, other times to plan a service project to benefit the J.B. Stephens community.

The program originated in the school’s improvement plan several years ago; it included a goal of connecting teachers and staff with more students, said social worker Christy Harpold, who helps organize the program.

The Pilot/Co-Pilot Program has done just that.

“We didn’t have anything that was just our teachers with our students outside of just the classroom,” she said. “It just blossomed from there.”

Teachers volunteer their classroom prep time once per month to meet with students after school. But it’s a sacrifice they say is worth it.

Kara Batton is in her second year as a third-grade teacher at J.B. Stephens and said she saw the benefits in her own classroom for students who participated in the program.

“I had kids last year that just needed kind of an extra buddy, … so that was just my opportunity to give back to that,” she said.

Batton is paired with Shannah, who has plenty to say about how fun it is to get together with a teacher after school.

At the first meeting last month, the pair played bingo. Shannah remembers the get-to-know-you activity well.

“Once, Miss Batton lost to me – a kid,” she said. “Two times, actually.”

Shannah and Jadon both said they are looking forward to the upcoming service projects, which include cleaning up around the school grounds and planting flowers.

Ask Shannah, and she’ll tell you she’s something of an expert when it comes to the environment.

“Sometimes, if you don’t clean up after yourself, what can happen is plants don’t grow,” she said. “And it looks like an ugly state, and we don’t like that. No flowers, no grass? What would it look like? I bet I know. I want to help clean up the universe if I can.”

Diana Johnson, a kindergarten/first-grade special-needs teacher, was looking for a way to work with students outside the classroom when she signed up as a co-pilot last year.

The program allows Johnson to do what she does best, connect with kids in a pressure-free environment. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about being a disciplinarian, just being an encouraging, positive force in a child’s life.

And the response from the children is overwhelming, she said.

“I think that they feel extra special having a teacher that’s not their teacher paying some attention to them,” she said.

But they aren’t the only ones benefitting, she said.

“I feel like I’m the winner,” she said. “It enriches me to see that and get to know other students in the building.”

Brinley said the twins have given the program rave reviews.

“They absolutely love it,” he said. “If they’re viewing something as a positive opportunity, there’s no reason for us to prevent them from pursuing it.”

Brinley looks forward to seeing the work the students will do throughout the year.

“And I hope Shannah gets her opportunity to clean up the universe,” he added.

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