A high school 'girls at risk' support group, founded by Men as Peacemakers, hopes to expand in Duluth

The teenage girls from Denfeld High School in Duluth lit their torches and cut the steel for a sculpture representing what they think women should be.

As they welded their sculpture together, they were earning a college credit and, perhaps, expanding their ideas of what girls can do.

The Girls Restorative Program at Denfeld uses activities such as the welding course, weekly in-school group meetings and peer mentorship to keep the teens on track to graduate from high school.

"The idea was looking at what we could do to connect girls to school," said Elena Bantle, program coordinator. That includes building friendships through cabin getaways, participating in a Take Back the Night speakout and learning to lead their peers.

The girls - about 100 each year - learn from each other and from guest speakers, talking about economic independence, healthy relationships, conflict resolution, gender norms, engaging in advocacy, building supportive culture and more.

A Duluth organization called Men as Peacemakers started the program, in cooperation with Central High School in the 2006-07 school year, to address community concerns about the number of girls dropping out of high school. When Central closed, the program moved to Denfeld.

Rashonda, 16, whose last name is not being used because of the program rules, was one of six girls who went to the welding course at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in nearby Superior.

"We made statues with words that express how we should be," she said, noting she and another girl collaborated on "growth." Their work was welded to images other girls created to illustrate the theme "Women in Community," including a woman holding the world and a torch. The artwork is a centerpiece in the room where group is held.

The Girls Restorative Program takes girls to the welding course to show them a possible career option that earns good money and to expand their ideas of what girls can do, Bantle said.

The program is composed of girls identified as at risk to not graduate, and the numbers suggest they are turning that around. Of those old enough to graduate, 62 percent have received a high school degree, according to numbers from Bantle. That includes 63 percent of black students and 57 percent of Native American students. By comparison, in 2012, the state Department of Education website says, 78 percent of all students graduated from Minnesota schools in four years, including 51 percent of black students and 46 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native.

While the girls are considered at risk, Bantle said, they are "brilliant, strong" girls with promising futures.

Last spring, the Girls Restorative Program started group sessions at Lincoln Park Middle School, which the program is working to continue this year. Denfeld juniors and seniors led monthly sessions for eighth-grade girls, choosing the topics and facilitating the discussion.

Rashonda was one of the leaders. "We wanted to discuss things we didn't get to talk to anyone about: boy problems, how to stay out of trouble, how to keep good grades and having someone to talk to when you have a problem," she said.

Bantle hopes the Girls Restorative Program can expand to other areas of Duluth that identify a need, and she envisions the girls using their leadership skills to lead the program someday.

"I would really love to see the next person to lead the group be a graduate," she said.

BE A CHANGEMAKER:

How you can help: The Girls Restorative Program welcomes mentors, chaperones or guest speakers, addressing topics such as applying to college, budgeting and careers. The program also accepts donations.

FFI: Elena Bantle, elena [at] menaspeacemakers [dot] org ( elena [at] menaspeacemakers [dot] org) or 205 W. 2nd St., #15, Duluth, MN 55802

(Photos courtesy of the Girls Restorative Program/Men as Peacemakers)

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