BELLINGHAM - Around the time math moved from basic numbers to more complex equations, Selena Fanning's parents stopped being able to help with her homework.
If she didn't understand the lesson in class, she was often on her own to figure it out at home. This year, though, the Sehome High School freshman has someone to help her out.
Fanning was paired with Sehome senior Jessica Gamache as part of a peer mentoring program, organized at the school by Communities in Schools Whatcom County.
"It just makes me feel like I've learned more," Fanning said. "Teachers don't always break it down. When I come here, Jessica explains it more. It's a plus because your mentor has already basically gone through what you're doing."
The program includes more than 60 freshmen paired with juniors or seniors who meet at least once a week to work on homework and school projects during Sehome's Anchor period - a designated time for students to study and meet with teachers. During that time, mentors help with homework assignments. They also can bring the students to talk with teachers about tests and work, or just talk about life in general.
"It's awesome," said freshman Giovanni Bautista. "You get to hang out with older people and get some work done."
Bautista and his mentor, senior Izzy Taft, spent a recent session planning a ceramics project that Bautista was going to start soon. Bautista enthusiastically sketched and bounced ideas off Taft, who had a checklist of items to go over with the younger student.
School officials are beginning to see results from the program, which started in 2010-11. Louis Walbrek, Communities in Schools program director at Sehome, said freshmen with mentors have shown improved attendance and are passing more classes since starting the program.
Sehome counselor Kip Jones said he's been seeing the social benefits for students involved - fewer behavioral issues and a more positive attitude toward being at school.
"The more we can improve that sense of belonging at Sehome, the more kids will show up every day," Jones said.
And while the program was intended to help freshmen, it's had a positive effect on the upperclassmen as well. Senior Noah Cyr-Moore said it felt good to be someone a younger student could talk to and look up to.
Gamache appreciates the chance to give back and help someone learn from her experience.
"I remember my first year, and I didn't do so well," she said. "I didn't think school was as important as I should've, and it does count, every single year. It all adds up."
Kids need to hear that message from each other, Sehome Principal Phyllis Textor said.
"As adults, we can tell them that," she said. "It's not the same as when a junior says to them, 'Don't do what I did. Stay on track your freshman year.'"
Textor has been thrilled to see the program take off. In its first year, organizers had to seek out students to be involved, and this year, the students came to them.
"It's created this culture that we all help each other," Textor said. "What we really want is those freshmen, we want when they're juniors to become mentors. That's when we're going to know we've made a difference."
Reach Zoe Fraley at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2803. Visit her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or get updates on Twitter at twitter.com/BhamSchools.
GRADUATION COACHES SOUGHT
In addition to peer mentoring, Communities in Schools Whatcom County offers graduation coaching at Sehome and Bellingham high schools. Volunteers from the community, usually Western Washington University students, work with students to make sure they're on track to graduate.
People interested in becoming graduation coaches can email email@example.com or call 360-676-6470, ext. 5254. Potential volunteers go through a background check, training and an interview to help match them with a compatible student.
Reach ZOE FRALEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 756-2803.