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SHIPROCK — Shiprock High School football players are spearheading a new program to tutor and mentor younger students on building positive relationships in the community.

Once a month, the football team will meet with students at Tsé Bit'a'í Middle School and Nizhoni Elementary School in Shiprock to help the younger students with homework and school projects. The program kicked off last week.

“We just feel like it's never too early to go and try to help these kids make good life choices and do what is best in the classroom,” said Chieftains coach Eric Stovall.

This year, Geraldine Herrod, assistant principal at Shiprock High, started a mentorship program called Chieftain Pals that connects high school students with younger students. The Chieftain football team players are the first students to participate in the new program.

“We wanted to bring our boys and girls into the classroom to help (students) academically and socially,” Herrod said. “To get our little ones to realize it is important to learn how to read, it is important to learn how to do math, it is important to be outspoken, it is important to be collaborative.”

To get the football team involved, Herrod reached out to Stovall, who has organized similar programs at C.V. Koogler Middle School in Aztec and Heights Middle School in Farmington.

Chieftain Pals is modeled after a similar program at Farmington's Piedra Vista High School, where Herrod's daughter played softball last year. Herrod credited Piedra Vista softball coach Kevin Werth for inspiring her to start the Shiprock program.

Last school year, Werth started Panther Pals. Every week, the school's football and softball players mentor students at Animas Elementary School in Farmington.

“The more people we can get involved, the more we reach these kids at a young age and get them on the right track,” Werth said. “It’s nice to see someone is putting other kids first.”

On Thursday afternoon, Shiprock High's football team, along with Stovall, made their first visit to Tsé Bit'a'í Middle School, where the players worked with about 65 eighth-grade students in the school's auditorium. They met with Nizhoni Elementary students in kindergarten and first and second grades on Friday.

Before dividing up into groups to interact with the Tsé Bit'a'í students, the team met with the school's principal, J. Kaibah Begay. Begay said she wanted the players to focus their attention on a group of eighth graders who are struggling academically.

“I feel that the kids at their own age need to learn from each other. That’s the only way it will really make an impact,” Begay said.

Shiprock senior Julian Aspaas and junior Donovan Chee were among the players who participated in Thursday's visit.

“It feels good to give back to the community and inspire these little kids to do good in school,” Aspaas said.

He said he wishes a similar program existed when he attended Tsé Bit'a'í, adding that it would have probbably made him less "rowdy."

Chee said he would have been more engaged in academics if a program like Chieftain Pals existed in his middle school.

“When I was younger, I messed around a lot,” Chee said. “I straightened up, and I pay more attention to school now. I like to learn, and I like academics now. If I had this back then, I probably would have a lot better grades than I did.”

One of the eighth-grade students in the program, Dominic Mitchell, said he likes what the program offers.

“I think it’s really supportive and helpful to help people with their future and with their work,” Mitchell said.

On Thursday, several players helped eighth-grade students Kendreanna Yazzie and Tyuilera Toney with their geometry and English homework.

Toney said she feels like there should be more programs for older students to mentor younger ones. She said parents and adults often struggle to understand her classwork because education has changed a lot since they were in school.

Administrators have high hopes for Chieftain Pals. Herrod said Shiprock High's volleyball team has already expressed interest in joining the program.

“My aspirations and hopes are we continue to pay it forward to give the kids in our community support and understanding,” Herrod said. “There are others besides their family that do care about their success, not just academically (and) socially but also being a part of a productive community as Navajos.”

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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