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Who Cares About At-Risk Students?

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Kelsey Carroll stars in a documentary about at-risk youth.

Washington

Kelsey Carroll, as a 19-year-old high school student in Somersworth, N.H., had many goals.

First among them?

"I just don't want to work at Market Basket my entire life," she says.

So begins the documentary "Who Cares About Kelsey?," which documents Carroll's drive to graduate in 2010. The film, directed and produced by Dan Habib, is currently being shown on public television around the country.

Carroll may be the standard-bearer for at-risk youth: Divorced parents. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Suspended from school. Low income, and at one point homeless.

Worst of all, she suffered a childhood sexual assault by one of her mother's friends, which went unaddressed.

But if Carroll is a model for what can go wrong in a child's life, she is also a model for how a student can succeed, with aid from a firm helping hand.

Habib met Carroll in 2009, after finishing his first film, "Including Samuel," which focuses on the filmmaker's son, who has cerebral palsy. After various showings of the documentary, audience members would approach Habib and ask if he had plans to do a film about students with social-emotional issues--the problems that aren't visible.

This prompted a trip to Somersworth High School, where officials have been working on implementing behavioral supports for at-risk students, and have succeeded in lowering the dropout rate significantly over the past few years. While Carroll's initial project included interviews with several students, and centered on education policy, his editors convinced him that Carroll deserved the focus.

America's Many Kelseys

Students like Carroll are more likely to end up in prison than a graduation gown. Even as schools try to diminish the use of suspension and expulsion, many still don't know where to draw the line with bad student behavior.

There are still pockets of teachers that favor keeping suspension as an option. Many schools would likely have given up on Carroll, especially those with zero-tolerance policies.

"Teaching social and emotional skills is just as important as math and language," Habib told me in an interview. "A group of people who really cared about her said, 'We can help you graduate.' And not just saying that but proving it everyday."

To guide students like Carroll, Somersworth installed a program that gave each at-risk student individual attention. Part teacher, part counselor, part parent, the RENEW project confers with students constantly, addressing problems quickly and together. It's one of many programs nationwide that tout the power of positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, which stresses the power of social-emotional engagement over harsh discipline.

Kathy Francouer, Somersworth's crisis-intervention coordinator, became the linchpin of Carroll's team. When Carroll divulged her problems in math, Francouer consulted Carroll's math teacher for options. She'd stop at Carroll's house to check in and offer a sympathetic ear. She seemed to become Carroll's anchor, and their friendship continues to this day.

"They come in defiant by high school and teachers are like 'Wow they have such an attitude,'" Francouer says in the film. "But they have no trust."

"I pretty much grew up with not being cared about," Carroll says. "I never got my hopes up for anything so I was never let down for anything."

But Carroll started to care about herself. In an effort to inspire other students, Habib's production team has put together an educator kit on how to teach the film in schools, which will be available this Wednesday. The official YouTube channel also has a series of vignettes that came out of the project. In addition, the project launched a new initiative this week, ICareBy.org, a website that offers ways to help troubled youth. The website breaks down opportunities to help, whether as a teacher, a parent, a student, or a policymaker.

Student Appreciation

On Friday, Habib and Carroll presented the film to the senior class of Woodrow Wilson High School, in Washington.

Carroll arrived in full black and some painful-looking heels, zebra-striped sunglasses resting on her head. Since 2009, she's added a couple of tattoos, and describes her plans for more. She used to cut herself, but after her parents threatened to put her in a hospital, Carroll discovered the value of tattoos as a kind of "good pain."

The students maintain almost total quiet during the film, giggling once as Carroll talks to the camera about sex. And when Carroll finally graduates, the Wilson students give her a rousing applause, which she says hasn't happened before.

When asked about walking across the stage, Carroll said she worried afterward. "I thought that they were going to contact me after graduation and take my diploma, like I didn't do something right or they were going to come repossess it."

When the film ends, the students barrage Carroll with questions. They ask her about her career, and she tells them about being a volunteer firefighter, working to become full-time. They ask about her parents, with whom she's strengthened her relationship. They ask her about the assault; she admits she needs counseling. They ask her about Shawn, her boyfriend, who breaks up with her in the film. (They later got back together, and were even engaged, until he developed a drug addiction. She had to get a restraining order after he started beating her. He's in rehab, and they haven't seen each other in seven months.)

When asked how teachers can help at-risk students, Carroll says to persist.

"Don't give up on them if they push you, because they're testing you," she says. "One of the things I say is that you can only hit a cement wall so many times before it eventually starts to break. And once you break a little bit, don't mess it up, because that wall will go back up."

She's a role model, someone who isn't lecturing these students so much as living just a few years ahead of them, having just fought the fights they're currently fighting, showing them they can overcome their trials with help, persistence, and grit.

Who cares about Kelsey? Just about everyone who meets her. And for the students who relate to her life, she cares about them, too.

Here's the full broadcasting schedule.

Image: Kelsey Carroll looks up at a guidance counselor during a
RENEW meeting at Somersworth High School. --Dan Habib/whocaresaboutkelsey.com

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