The community group Bemidji Leads envisioned the Students First program in 2009 and made its development and implementation a top priority. A community advisory team made up of charter and district school administration, teachers, counselors, parents, county government, business, and youth-serving organizations developed the Students First Operations Plan through an unprecedented collaborative process led by BASC and Headwaters Regional Development Commission (HRDC).
Since it was launched in 2010, Students First has expanded to serve students at Bemidji Middle School, Bemidji High School, and Kelliher Public Schools. In Bemidji, students in 6th grade meet in a classroom setting with Students First Strengths Educators once a month, and 7th-12th grade meet in a large group setting with an individual success coach once a month. In Kelliher Public Schools, students in 6th grade meet in a classroom setting with Students First Educators, 7th grade meet monthly with peer mentors, and 8th grade meet monthly with success coaches. Students in 9th-12th grade serve as peer mentors. The “Kelliher Model” is a hybrid version of the program.
Over 400 students and over 300 volunteer success coaches participate in the program from both Bemidji and Kelliher Schools. In 2016, Students First was a recipient of the National School Boards Association's Magna Awards and continues to thrive and find ways to better serve the students in the program. Students First has helped hundreds of amazingly talented students grow and mature. The program utilizes StrengthsExplorer and CliftonStrengths to help students understand their strengths and enable them to use those strengths in everyday life. The HOPE Scale is also a tool that is used each year to measure each student's progress and sense of hope.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year, Student First will transition into serving 6th-9th grade students in Bemidji. Evaluation of the program revealed that Students First was most efficient, effective, and impactful when serving the younger students, helping them through the point at which they make their transition to the high school. The objective is to help the younger students become aware of their natural gifts through the Clifton Strengths assessments, match them with success coaches who will support them, and provide them with tools to engage with their gifts and goals.