- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

WURTLAND, Ky. (AP) - Whether drawing a poster, stringing beads, or practicing math skills together, Izik Baldridge and Jameson Polley are friends.

And they have been pretty much since the first day Jameson came to Izik’s special education classroom as a peer mentor, one of a group of students who spend one class period each day working with special education students.

“It’s fun to work with Izik. He’s fun to talk to,” said Jameson, while Izik colored in the letters on his poster.

She helps him and other kids in his class with schoolwork and in the process pass along social skills the children need to fit in with their peers at school.

It’s a new program first-year special education teacher Stacy Black launched at Wurtland Middle School after seeing it during her student-teaching days.

Students who sign up to be mentors keep busy each day with three basic tasks:?tutoring in academic areas, preparing materials for upcoming classes, and running the bookstore - actually a pushcart from which they sell pencils, erasers, gum and other sundries.

Black matches up her students with a mentor at the same grade level for tutoring. Eighth-grader Beck Collins, for instance, helped Katie Roush, also in eighth grade, count change collected from the bookstore.

Students respond well to working with children their own age, Black said.

Mentors accompany more of Black’s students on a trip through the halls with the store, stopping at each room to display their wares and drum up sales.

From that, Black’s students learn skills they will need after graduation to get jobs or continue their education.

Her students have a wide range of learning and developmental disabilities, and Black wants to succeed in life. The program has been active only a few weeks but she already sees clear progress. “Even in a two-week period we can see their social skills have been better.”

That’s important now that they are in middle school and soon will be in high school, both arenas where children put one another under an unforgiving social microscope.

The mentors “set a social example and demonstrate appropriate social behavior, which helps them fit in and make friends.” That prepares them for successful, confident lives after school.

Mentors also help Black prepare materials for the next day’s class. One recent afternoon they and Black’s students were stringing multicolored, heart-shaped beads onto fuzzy pipecleaners.

It’s a job that Black otherwise would have stay after school or stay up late to do herself. Recruiting the children to do it spares her the drudgery, and for the children it turns into a fun counting activity.

Becoming a mentor isn’t easy, and Black designed it that way. Mentors have to be nominated by a teacher, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, and accumulate fewer than three demerits in each reporting period.

“I?want it to be prestigious, so that students fight to get in,”?she said.

This year’s mentors would have to be re-nominated next year to remain in the program. The program is conducted during the elective period and they get an elective credit for it

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