Dellana Kessler, a junior at Bangor High School, has been mentoring second grader Juliette Cone for five months. The two get together weekly at Vine Street School near the end of the school day. Kessler is teaching Cone how to knit and Cone is teaching Kessler how to weave. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Dellana Kessler, 17, and Juliette Cone, 8, met at one of Angela Okafor’s hair braiding workshops last fall. Soon after, Cone’s mother asked the Bangor high schooler to mentor her daughter. She wanted her child, who is biracial, to have another young woman of color as a role model.

“Her mom said she could use someone, anyone, who looks like her,” Kessler said. The two now meet every Wednesday for 40 minutes at the Vine Street School, where Cone is a second grader.

Kessler is teaching Cone how to knit and crochet, and in turn, Cone is teaching her mentor how to weave. The two usually work on craft projects together after school until Cone goes to the YMCA, where she waits for a family member to collect her after work.

Dellana Kessler, a junior at Bangor High School, and second grader Juliette Cone share a laugh while doing crafts together after school on Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Kessler is one of 559 people who’ve signed up to mentor students in the Bangor School Department as part of a program that Superintendent James Tager started in the fall.

While the mentoring program is less than a year old, Bangor school officials say they’re hopeful it will lead to higher graduation rates and address the social and emotional challenges that have emerged in school during a pandemic that has upended kids’ lives.

Tager said he modeled the program after a similar approach he took in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he was an educator before becoming superintendent of Bangor schools last summer.

One of his students grew up in the city’s most impoverished neighborhood being raised by a grandmother and wasn’t expected to finish school, Tager said. He took this student under his wing, ensuring that she woke up on time for class and attended school regularly. Other teachers followed suit in taking on individual students as mentees.

Superintendent James Tager started a mentoring program in the Bangor School Department last fall. While the mentoring program is less than a year old, Bangor school officials say they’re hopeful that it will lead to increased graduation rates and help kids with their return to school full-time. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

During that time, the rate of students graduating jumped from 69 to 83 percent in a year. Tager’s mentee was one of the success stories, which he attributed to the mentorship program. The student joined the U.S. Army after finishing high school, and he last saw her in January 2021.

“She’s doing quite well,” Tager said. “I thought if you could take a student like that, what would this do for our students here in Bangor, too?”

Almost 48 percent of Bangor students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 38.3 percent statewide. And the school department’s four-year graduation rate last spring, at 82 percent, was four percent lower than that of the state as a whole, revealing a need for some sort of intervention, like the mentoring program, Tager said. Schools have also seen an uptick in behavioral problems among younger students, he said.

Second grader Juliette Cone (right) helps Dellana Kessler do some final work to the pot holder that Kessler is weaving. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The school department funds the mentoring program coordinator position using federal COVID relief funds.

The program started among teachers who had capacity to mentor students who attended Bangor’s 11 schools, said Julie Kimball, the mentoring coordinator. It has since opened up to include outside mentors from the community, who must pass a background check and are matched with a mentee via a survey.

Kimball maintains a database of interested mentors, including retired educators, current staff and administrators, and outside community members.

The mentoring program runs the gamut from one-on-one counselors to small groups to larger group settings. There is also a third avenue, for students like Kessler who want to mentor younger students.

Second grader Juliette Cone helps Dellana Kessler do some final work to the pot holder she is weaving. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

That avenue is the fastest growing part of the program, Kimball said. Older students are drawn to working with younger students.

“You never know what they’re going to do,” Kimball said of the younger kids. “They’re a lot of fun, they have a lot of energy and [the older students] just feel like they’re making a difference.”

The program has also drawn in people who wouldn’t otherwise take part in an educational setting, such as bankers who mentor students who want to learn about starting their own businesses, Kimball said. One high school freshman who is in a JROTC program is being mentored by a teacher’s spouse who is a former Black Hawk pilot.

Eight-year-old Juliette Cone and Dellana Kessler (left), 17, work on crafts together after school on Wednesday. Kessler has been Cone’s mentor for five months and the two get together weekly at Vine Street School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Other mentors help their mentees reach more personal goals, like opening their own bank accounts or earning a driver’s license.

Kessler said that in the five months since she started meeting with her mentee, Cone’s mother told her that the second grader gets excited every week that they meet. Cone said her younger brother, who’s 6, now wants his own mentor.  

“I can’t wait to see more people join it,” Kessler said.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.