Alex Brooks sauntered into the art room at Woodland Elementary School and almost immediately became the center of attention.
A table of boys, all drawing portraits with pencils, motioned Alex over so he could see their work. He grabbed a chair, and before long the group was laughing and joking as it continued to sketch away.
Organizers of the school's pilot project pairing freshmen from neighboring Zephyrhills High School with the elementary students couldn't have asked for better results. Their goal, after all, is to keep kids in school by creating meaningful peer relationships for them.
"If you can get kids to feel connected or involved, they typically attend better," said Shannon Matthews, coordinator of graduation enhancement programs for the high school.
It took little time for the 15 participating freshmen to find that connection while working with Woodland students four days each week.
"It feels good helping people," said Alex, a shaggy-haired 14-year-old who's assigned to teacher Stephanie Miller's fifth-grade class. "It's pretty fun so far."
The fifth-graders like the arrangement, too.
"They know stuff, and the teachers don't have to be so busy helping us out," said Dyllan Beers. "They can do what they need to do."
"They're cool," added Melaina Mosher, who worked with Jasmine Ortiz, another Zephyrhills High freshman in the pilot program. "They're older, and we like to hang out with older people."
Woodland principal Kimberly Poe predicted such a response.
"The kids will look at you like movie stars," Poe told the freshmen during their first visit to Woodland. "You are the example for them going to high school."
And in setting that example, the story line runs, the students also will see that they matter and that their attendance and participation in school matters, too.
That's how it worked for the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, a nationally renowned dropout prevention initiative started in Texas 25 years ago that's the driving idea behind the Woodland-Zephyrhills project.
That's what educators in Zephyrhills want to see. Give students some personal and academic responsibility, and look for it to translate into increased self-esteem and self-discipline.
"These are the kids who we have to instill that love of learning back in them," Poe said.
Teacher Stephanie Hill was not surprised by how quickly her students took to Alex. From the first day, she had him working with individual children who needed extra attention on their schoolwork.
"He wants to help. He's young. He's a boy. The boys feel like it's male time," Hill said, as Alex monitored the children taking a science test. "Once he really gets to know them more, he'll really look forward to seeing them."
She appreciates the help, too.
"It's nice to have an extra hand for questions and things," said Hill, who agreed to have a freshman tutor in her room only after learning that he would come consistently.
In the past, she welcomed older students to her class only to have them give up after a few weeks. This group is getting credit for the work and comes to Woodland at 1:15 p.m. every Monday through Thursday for 30-minute sessions.
Art teacher Barbara Moore also praised the program. She spoke highly of Jasmine, assigned to her classroom.
"She's really good with the kids," Moore said. "She's very pleasant. ... The other day I was busy handing out papers and then the phone rang. She just came over and took the papers and handed them out. I didn't even have to ask."
Jasmine, who admitted being "not that into school," said she enjoys working with youngsters so much, she stayed late by nearly 30 minutes the other day and had to explain to her waiting mom.
"I forgot what time I was supposed to leave," Jasmine said, adding that she was having fun coloring with students. "It's good. I'm helping out."
Other schools are watching. If the project proves successful, it could expand throughout Pasco County next year.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.