Ask Mimi Willoughby about her job and right away, her eyes bulge with enthusiasm. Her hands make sweeping gestures to convey the scope of her vision. She spits out data like spreadsheets from a printer, all of it animated by exclamatory body language.

The job she’s so excited about is officially labeled DMPS Academic Pathways Supervisor. A better title would be The Graduator.

From her headquarters at the Kurtz Opportunity Center, she directs traffic on the district roads less (but increasingly) traveled by, including Flex Academy, Options Academy, PLACE, Core Diploma and summer school, roads now cleared to make even greater differences in the lives of at-risk students.

Recently, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation announced expansion of a pilot initiative called tMHFA (Teen Mental Health First Aid) to 35 additional schools, including DMPS Flex Academy.

The innovative peer-to-peer program trains high school students in a 5-step action plan for helping friends who face a mental health problem or crisis.

One in five teens has had a serious mental health disorder at some point in their life. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. Not surprising, given that a quarter of kids experience a traumatic event in their lives by the time they start school.

“We applied to participate in this pilot because of how well Flex Academy has done as a trauma-sensitive program,” said Willoughby upon receiving the news about tMHFA. “All of our Flex teachers (19) are training in tMHFA.”

Her enthusiasm is contagious, extending to the highest levels of the district administration.

“Even (Superintendent) Tom Ahart is certified in tMHFA,” Willoughby said. “He took our course over the summer.”

Willoughby’s own road into the profession of education was winding. In college, she studied journalism.

“I was working in radio, television, and marketing and didn’t find deep meaning in the work,” Willoughby said. She did a reset and earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. “I went on to teach for eight years in Title I and charter schools because I wanted to work with at-risk kids; for equity and social justice.”

Those are lofty goals, and she’s making progress.

“The Flex Academy is breaking barriers for our at-risk youth,” said Willoughby. “Since 2015-16, Flex Academy has provided credit recovery for 1,431 DMPS graduates districtwide and, in the space of three years, student achievement rose by 45%.”

Willoughby is a trailblazer guided by a moral compass that always points her in the direction of outreach to students in need of helping hands to pull them back up through the cracks in traditional routes.

She’s widened the formerly one-lane road to high school graduation with new Academic Pathways.

For more information about them, visit their web site:

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