Grand Forks Public Schools opened the Mentor Center this week on the UND campus for any student -- in grades 6 through 12 -- who needs tutoring help, counseling or just the chance to hang out with other students in a safe environment during the pandemic.

School district administrators indicated they hope that students receiving in-person instruction and full-time distance-learning students, who are craving interaction with teachers and other students, will use the walk-in services available in the facility.

“We know that the pandemic has been a strain on everyone -- on academics as much as on physical health,” said Robin David, who began her work as director of the Mentor Center on Jan. 4.

The isolation that can come with distance learning has an impact on students, according to David.

“It’s serious, and can show up in academic work," she said. “We know that one of the things that is most lacking for students right now is that sense of connection with other people."

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While distance-learning students connect with teachers and other students virtually, it’s not the same as human contact, said Cathering Gillach, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

Use of the services at the center is voluntary, but some students may be referred by teachers or other school professionals.

Having a safe environment, during the pandemic, was also a critical element in choosing a location. The majority of students who have chosen to learn remotely have done so for COVID-related reasons, Gillach said.

Rapid development

The past few weeks have been marked by a flurry of activity as David and others have prepared to open the center. The details are seemingly limitless, she said.

“It’s been everything from (how to address) the most serious mental health issues to, do we have toilet paper in the bathrooms? That’s what the last few weeks have been like," she said.

In developing plans for the center, David talked with education professionals, including middle- and high-school administrators, the district’s Native American liaison, Chad Ward, and English Language program specialists about what they want.

“We’ve been doing a lot of listening,” said David, noting the input has been useful in drafting an assessment of what services students need and want, which includes such things as help to prepare for college, classes in the arts and academic tutoring and enrichment.

“We’re assessing what that flow is, and we want to be aggressive in meeting those needs," said David, who expects the Mentor Center project will be “very robust and very nimble effort.”

Among the staff members who have been hired to work at the center, Heidi Lamb Castle, a counselor and special education teacher, sees the value of this venue for students’ well-being.

“Our students have been deprived of social interaction and hands-on projects -- and even outdoor projects,” said Castle, who is the parent of school-age children. “One of our goals is to meet their needs. So as a counselor, I’ll be engaging kids in social interactions, small-group activities, including playing games, arts and crafts, talking, doing some yoga,” she said, as she took part in training last week.

The Mentor Center, located in the UND Clinical Education Center at Sixth Avenue North and Hamlin Street, is open and staffed from 1 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1 to 5 p.m. Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.

The building offers several advantages, David said, noting that the 16 individual exam rooms that were used for testing medical students’ clinical skills, provide quiet private spaces for students to study -- something they may lack at home.

A break room can be used by students to have a snack, supplied by the district’s Child Nutrition Program, and the lecture bowl will be suitable for playing games together or working on art projects, while physically distanced, David said. And the nearby, well-lit bus stop and parking lot make for easy access to the Mentor Center.

“We’re hearing a lot of interest amongst (school district) staff,” said David of the facility, which can accommodate up to 40 students.

‘Sense of connection’

David has hired 11 temporary staff members for the Mentor Center and coordinated their training prior to Monday’s opening. The staff is key to the project’s success and to developing the sense of connection with students, according to David.

“The more comfortable they are, the more likely they are to come back. We want to build those relationships and connections,” she told the group of new hires last week.

Staff members include computer technicians, tutors, mental health and social-emotional learning specialists and teachers, including special education and English language teachers.

“They need to be very well cross-trained, and ready to help a 10th-grader with geometry or a seventh-grader with English,” David said.

The Mentor Center is supported by a $182,000 grant the school district received from the Governor’s Emergency Educational Relief (GEER) Fund, with federal monies that flowed to North Dakota’s state government, Gillach said.

This is the largest GEER grant awarded in North Dakota and is a testament to Taunya Schleicher, the district’s grant writer, and the team she assembled to write and submit the grant application in less than two weeks, according to David.

The government intended GEER monies to be used to support students who are struggling and to create a face-to-face, offsite, COVID-safe venue that would address students’ academic and social-emotional needs. The funds must be expended by June, Gillach said.

“These are dollars that allow for additional support that we couldn’t afford,” she said.

Nationwide, many educators are concerned that some students, who are not in a face-to-face learning mode due to COVID, have academic losses that may prevent them from progressing in school or graduating from high school this spring.

UND support

An unexpected plus for the district is the support the Mentor Center is receiving from the UND community.

“UND believes so strongly in the project that it donated the space for the Mentor Center,” Gillach said. “We are so grateful to UND. (The donation) means that we can spend money on kids, not space.”

Though details are not confirmed, Gillach and other administrators are “optimistic” that UND students who are earning degrees in the Teaching and Learning program also may provide services to K-12 students at the Mentor Center.

“We have a very short period in which to expend the dollars, but we’re really appreciative and thankful that we even have this opportunity because there are needs galore out there,” Gillach said. “And we’re pretty confident that the Mentor Center will be able to really provide some of those supports that kids are looking for and missing.”

For more information, call the Mentor Center at (701) 215-5484, visit in person or go to the school district website at https://www.gfschools.org/Page/9332.