FARGO — Retaining high schoolers’ attention is difficult on a good day, but a new program is breaking down the barriers and connecting teachers with students and their peers.

Tried and tested first by Moorhead High School, the program, titled Building Assets, Reducing Risks — or BARR — was implemented for the first time in North Dakota at Fargo South High School this year. It is aimed at helping ninth graders adjust, has been implemented in more than 200 schools across 21 states and serves more than 150,000 students.

“In the world of high school, when kids buy into something, that’s just great, because they don’t really buy into anything,” said Shannon Mortrud, assistant principal at Fargo South.

“It came at the right time; it really helped organize us,” Mortrud said. “It’s like high school 101, to try and make the transitions easier from middle schools to high schools.”

Fargo South High School wasn’t picked for the program, Mortrud said. “We picked BARR, so it was our teachers who were passionate about making sure the transition into ninth grade was successful. We weren’t told to do it, and it wasn’t put upon us. It was just a willingness to try new things.”

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One of the most successful parts of the program is called I-Time, which is where teachers and students take a short break from the books to say something about themselves.

Sometimes, students don’t want the class to finish, Mortrud said. The program was integrated into the core classes, like English, science, health and world culture, she said, and although teacher-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships occur naturally, the program accelerates relationship building and hopes to break down potential barriers.

“When we learned about this, it wasn’t a hard sell because we knew what the teachers want,” Mortrud said.

Not only does the program seek to strengthen teacher and student relationships, it also helps reduce dropout rates and boost achievement.

Implementation of the program became possible after a grant from the North Dakota Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group, an organization that works on juvenile justice reform, using best practices and current research on adolescent development.

“Freshman transition is difficult, and they don’t understand they need credits to graduate. A lot of students take a semester to understand why credits are important," Mortrud said. "I can already tell that this is already creating something, creating a feeling that, 'I am a Bruin and these are my people.'"

“We are fortunate to become the first BARR school in North Dakota,” said Todd Bertsch, the principal at Fargo South High School, adding that the program will broaden the school’s network to coaching and other assistance from teachers across the nation.

“It is one of the greatest equity things you can do, because it benefits all kids,” said Tamara Uselman, director of equity and inclusion for Fargo Public Schools.