REACH program hits the high school

Published 8:01 am Sunday, October 5, 2014

Bonnie Reitz and Maryanne Law Sunde listen as Kirsten Lindbloom explains different aspects of REACH. Jenae Hackensmith/

Bonnie Reitz and Maryanne Law Sunde listen as Kirsten Lindbloom explains different aspects of REACH.
Jenae Hackensmith/

Austin High School has adopted a program for students who may have previously slipped through the cracks.

REACH, which stands for relationships, education, accountability, character and hard work, is a program to provide academic, social and/or emotional support to sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“Those foundations are really stressed and supported in a way that’s really helpful in all the facets of the program,” Austin High School counselor and teacher Thor Bergland said.

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He has worked with the program since it began this yearand is excited about where the students are going.

Jasmine Renteria, a junior in REACH, recalled the start.

“In the beginning, a lot of students thought it was harsh,” she said.

She was speaking to Bonnie Reitz, a member of the Hormel Foundation, at the REACH open house on Wednesday evening at the high school. Members of the community were invited to learn about the program, and meet some of the students involved. Jasmine spoke about her experiences with REACH.

“This is a really good program for a lot of students,” Jasmine said. “If it wasn’t for this program I probably wouldn’t have good grades.”

Jasmine had a connection with Bergland and Lindbloom before the program and was thankful for their presence after joining.

“They were actually there for me mentally and physically,” she said. “We’re all like family here now.”

Her main goal is to graduate high school.

“I’m just glad because I have good grades and I’m passing. I just really want to graduate,” Jasmine said.

She isn’t the only one with big goals. Madison Underhill, a junior, plans to attend Winona State University after high school, and she said without this program she may not have met that goal.

“If it wasn’t for the program this year I’d probably be failing my classes like I was last year,” she said.

She already had a connection to Bergland from the previous year, and when asked to join she jumped right in.

“I felt like it was just a good opportunity for me,” Madison said. “It’s helped me a lot.”

“It’s not like other classes,” she added. “We actually communicate socially and emotionally and stuff, it’s just nice.”

Bergland, Kirsten Lindbloom, Whitney Heiny and several other teachers and staff work with the students for two class periods each day. The roughly 60 students are divided into two blocks, then two classes.

According to Bergland, there are at least four staff members in each class to help with students, and teachers have helped students during prep hours.

“We’re getting support from the teaching staff as well, so that’s a good thing,” Bergland said.

There’s support from other places, also. The Hormel Foundation’s donation to the program allowed them to purchase needed supplies. Members of the Austin Public Schools Board are also on board.

“I like the program. It’s going to help them graduate,” school board member Greg Larson said at the open house. “It sounds like it’s given these kids someone they can trust.”

REACH gives students one elective credit, as well as the ability to do credit recovery: making up academic credits previously lost.

REACH originated at Hutchinson High School in Minnesota. After visiting the school, staff members implemented the program in Austin.

“We liked the, I guess the whole structure of the program,” Bergland said. “It seemed to fit in the population we were looking for.”

When they started REACH, Bergland was excited to see everyone get on board, including high school principal Katie Baskin, superintendent David Krenz, and others.

The program is unlike any programs already in place. Bergland said it’s a chance to be very active in the facets of the students’ lives, especially academically. The program requires teachers follow-through with a student’s behavior, attendance and daily grade reports, among others.

“The program gives us the ability to see the achievement gaps and behavior gaps and try to form better sources and better skills,” Bergland said. “The structures of the program also gives the students short-term feedback both to keep them on track and to celebrate their achievements.”

Bergland said 26 students have already raised their GPA from the beginning of the year. Students can exit the voluntary program at any time, but if they fail to follow the point system/guidelines three times, they get removed from the program.

Student responses have varied.

“You find students [that] are really liking it, some that are questioning, and some that are like, is it for me or not,” Bergland said.

Courtney Lopez, a sophomore, is glad she joined the program and now her goal to go to college seems within reach.

“I wanted to do better and graduate. And it seemed really fun, and it seemed like a good opportunity,” Courtney said.

She was asked to join the group due to an unsuccessful previous school year.

“[I’ve] got a long way to go, but I feel like I’m on track,” she said.

This first year, students were asked to join the program through teacher recommendation. While REACH is planned to be an elective class in the future, there are still criteria that must be met for eligibility. The target goals for REACH students include increasing credit consumption, gaining networks in school, graduating on time, gaining better relationships at school and home, and more.

Each day has a specific agenda, check-in from the weekend, academic days, skill and team building exercises and looking over goals.

“For us it’s like building a culture, building a community and building a tradition,” Bergland said.

He said students get used to the weekly routine and know what’s expected of them each day.

“I think that they actually enjoy the structure and the accountability piece,” Bergland said. “I think some of the students want to be successful but just don’t quite know how.”

Being that gentle reminder, Bergland said, is helpful to the students. The staff help students apply skill sets they learn in REACH in their personal lives.

“I actually think they enjoy succeeding and being self sufficient,” Bergland said.