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PR-B seeks AmeriCorps Promise Fellows applicants

Starting July 31, Pine River-Backus (PR-B) Schools will officially be on the hunt for two new AmeriCorps Promise Fellows, following the end of the term of service for current fellows Bobby Brunhuber and Rachael Biggar.

PR-B has been awarded four Promise Fellows during the last three years. During earlier years, the school was awarded one fellow by AmeriCorps and the Minnesota Education Alliance with Youth (MEAY), but during the 2013-14 school year, the school was awarded a second. For 2014-15, PR-B will again host two fellows of the approximately 210 in Minnesota, though the positions have yet to be filled.

"Pine River has done such excellent work in supporting our Promise Fellows. Some communities get one or two, but it's really based on a community need and request," said Sarah Ullmer, lead director of education and training for MEAY.

PR-B Superintendent Cathy Bettino said that Promise Fellows have been instrumental in helping the school's at-risk students in various ways.

"Our last application, our graduation rate had improved significantly. In that application, we had attributed some of that success to AmeriCorps fellows," Bettino said.

Promise Fellows are distributed to schools according to many factors, including poverty levels and graduation rates. Ullmer said schools are selected based on need.

"The Promise Fellows serve students who are at risk. That is somewhat defined by the community. It could be poverty level, it could be looking at students who have low attendance rates or those who aren't engaged in schools," said Ullmer. "Promise Fellows are meant to be additional caring adults. They fill a support role for students who are not engaged or maybe at risk of dropping out of school."

How a Promise Fellow fills their role varies greatly from fellow to fellow. According to Biggar, the fellows all focus on student attendance, behavior and academics, but they operate in a school and community outside of those parameters as well.

"There's community work, meeting with other Promise Fellows, fundraising and just doing a lot of different elements within the community that support the core purpose of it," Biggar said.

"The Promise Fellows before us ... I hear they did an excellent job. They were really inside the schools, and they kind of worked the whole school academic thing to a T," Brunhuber said.

Aside from in school involvement, Brunhuber and Biggar specialized in community involvement and volunteering as well.

"In-school interventions is one side. Then the other side, a side we really tried to focus on this year, is the community-based stuff to get students engaged in their community," Brunhuber said. "In a way they never have been before, in terms of service projects and different things to increase visibility of people, working with businesses like Dark Cravings or organizations like the Family Center."

Though they have many shared duties, fellows each year differ greatly.

"Every year we've had a great Promise Fellow, and everyone was so different and brought a completely different skill set to the job," Bettino said. "Fortunately, even though it has been different, every year has been fantastic, too."

Fellows are not required to have teaching degrees or experience. AmeriCorps provides guidance, training, orientation and life coaches for those who would like assistance. The position is one of growth.

"AmeriCorps is great because it's an experience builder," Brunhuber said. "You need to have some basic background skills to show you are equipped for the job, but you will develop a lot of of those skills as you move along."

Ullmer said that ideal candidates for the fellows positions are people from the community that have an understanding of the needs.

"This past year, Bobby Brunhuber used to go to Pine River School, so he served as a (fellow). I think that's an excellent model so he can directly relate to students," Ullmer said. "We are looking for AmeriCorps members who are really passionate and also looking for experience in working with youth and might be interested in teaching and counseling. That's a really good opportunity for them to dip their feet in."

Applicants for the positions can vary greatly.

"It can look very different. You can be a single parent and work during the school hours only. You can be a new graduate from college or high school looking for an opportunity or stepping stone to learn networking skills. You can just be someone that wants to help kids succeed. I'd say ... that hope is really the key thing to being successful in this position," Biggar said. "Beyond that there's no specific type of person. There is no specific individual that needs to necessarily fit into a model and make it fit. You have the opportunity to make it your own."

Promise Fellow positions are awarded in one-year terms. In addition to wages, fellows are also eligible for a yearly educational award of more than $5,000 which can be applied to student loans or to higher education. Fellows qualify for this award for two years only. Brunhuber said an additional benefit is the experience and confidence gained.

"Right out of college I was offered a position that would have moved me away to New Jersey. I kind of turned it down out of shell shock. I was a couple weeks out of school and didn't quite have my feet beneath me or ready to be on my own," Brunhuber said. "I feel like this year is a nice progression into what professional life is like, and what is expected of me. 'Here are the liberties you can take and where you need to be reined back in.' I feel entirely confident now."

Following the completion of their terms, Brunhuber and Biggar have very different plans. Brunhuber plans to seek work in either the Fargo/Moorhead area or the Twin Cities. Biggar is applying for full-time positions in the Pine River community, but is considering applying for a second term at PR-B.

"I want to see this community own this position as much as the school ... I think a lot of good has been done, and I think a lot of these kids have internalized that there's extra help there, and they can reach out in maybe a way they wouldn't reach out to teachers. It's a tool the community can use and it's a tool for students to use. Hopefully people will continue to do so," Brunhuber said.

"You know what these people do? They change lives, and we got involved in this because so many kids fall through the cracks, and these positions allow us to catch those kids, and the fellows end up changing these kids' lives always for the better," Bettino said.

When contacted, Pequot Lakes School officials were uncertain whether the district has ever applied for AmeriCorps Promise Fellows, though they have used Minnesota Reading Corps services, a program that provides trained literacy tutors for elementary students.

To apply to become a Promise Fellow, contact the PR-B District Office at 218-587-4720 or visit