“Quantum Leap” keeps Bennington kids in school

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(Host) An innovative program in it’s fifth year in Bennington is being credited with returning truant students to school.

The program takes students who have lost interest in school and puts them in charge of their own education.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Ashley nervously jingles some coins as she talks about her difficult relationship with her mother. The seventeen-year-old and her boyfriend have temporarily moved in with her grandmother. Ashley’s father went to prison in June. In the midst of all these problems, going to class at Mount Anthony Union High School seemed like an afterthought.

(Ashley) “It’s not that I don’t like school it’s just that I had way too much things going in my life and I had to drop something and the first thing that I dropped was school. It wasn’t really my choice. It was because I couldn’t mentally handle everything that was going on in my life.”

(Zind) Rather than drop out, Ashley volunteered for a program called Quantum Leap. The program is run by faculty members and staffed by students from nearby Bennington College. The goal is to help dropouts and kids who are truant return to school – and to help them learn to better manage their problems. Bennington Professor Susan Sgorbati is one of the program’s founders.

(Sgorbati) “We work with students who have very, very serious problems, from family issues to poverty to homelessness to drug and substance abuse.”

(Zind) Quantum Leap gives kids a chance to continue their education, at the same time giving them a break from the classroom. Students work one-on-one with Quantum Leap mentors, mostly Bennington College students who aren’t much older than their charges. They encourage students to think about the future, what their interests are and the kinds of jobs that involve those interests.

Oona Gilles-Weil is a Quantum Leap mentor. She says the program isn’t simply an easy way out for students who don’t want to be in a classroom. Students have to commit to a plan of individual study.

(Gilles-Weil) “The plan is very serious. It’s ‘what are your goals for this semester and what are the goals for the couple of years ahead and what are your goals for ten years down the road?’ And how is this semester going to help you get to those goals.”

(Zind) Tying the credits they’re earning today with what they want to do in the future creates a connection that these kids haven’t experienced before. Making the students responsible for planning their own education gives them a sense of ownership.

When it works, Quantum Leap acts as a bridge: students reconnect with school and return to the classroom. And the program has worked for an overwhelming majority of students. Out of one hundred and thirty five students who have passed through the program, all but seven have graduated.

Robin Gardner’s daughter, Bethany, earned her degree last spring. Gardner saysBethany was having a hard time at school before she entered Quantum Leap.

(Gardner) It was just frustrating, getting calls at work: ‘Do you know what your daughter’s doing?’ And after a while, ‘would you like to hear what she’s doing?’ And after a lot of those telephone calls I said,”no, not really.’ It was just so discouraging.”

(Zind) Gardner credits Quantum Leap with her daughter’s success.

David Beriau is Mount Anthony’s Associate Principal. Beriau says Quantum Leap has been critical is helping students at at a school where the dropout rate is higher than the state average.

(Beriau) “And I think we have a really needy population. The profile of Bennington is a town that’s in economic stress. Not a town that’s known for having a high percentage of people who have gone beyond secondary school in terms of parents.”

(Zind) Buriau says there was some initial skepticism about the unlikely pairing of the Mount Anthony and a college with an image in the community of being a little too “touch feely.” But he gives Quantum Leap high marks for its success with students.

One key to that success is the staff’s involvement in a student’s life. Quantum Leap mentors help the students learn to deal with problems they’re having outside the classroom by teaching them to negotiate for what they want. Susan Sgorbati says Quantum Leap mentors act as mediators, helping students defuse volatile situations.

(Sgorbati) “We really teach a lot conflict resolution skills. We really teach students to negotiate for themselves. So that when things start to fall apart it’s not the end.”

(Zind) Jordan is eighteen. At one point things were so bad that eight Quantum Leap mentors were working with him. Jordan says they helped him learn to cope with his anger.

(Jordan) “When I got angry, I’d just do anything to get it out, I’d break stuff, I’d just go off on people no matter what. I didn’t think of the consequences. But now I tell people when I’m angry. I can feel my anger coming up so I know I have to do something about it before it comes out and I get in trouble.”

(Zind) Most of the kids in Quantum Leap will hit rough spots. They have moments when they soar – and times when they crash and burn.

Ashley has only been in the program for a short while. She’s not yet sure she likes it, but she seems to have a sense that, for now, being here is better than not being in school at all.

(Ashley) “I don’t know where I’d be. Probably not here. Who knows where I’d be.”

(Zind) Quantum Leap’s founders believe their approach to at-risk students could work at other schools. A similar program has been established in Brattleboro, and school officials in New York City have expressed an interest. Quantum Leap is funded by grants from the Agency of Human Services and several private foundations.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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