Student mentors help freshmen adjust to life in high school

By MacKenzie Ryan, Associated Press | Posted - Aug. 30, 2015 at 9:20 a.m.

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Among teens, nerves take various forms. The sideways glances, with hair hanging over their eyes.

The slouching stance, with crossed arms. And the tentative movements, with stifled giggles.

With the last ticket sold at the Iowa State Fair, the time is finally here for many local schools: the first day of school.

And with it, so often, comes those nervous jitters — especially for students making the leap to high school.

"I'm anxious to get on with it and get it over with," said 14-year-old Dylan Lurch, who is beginning ninth grade, The Des Moines Register ( ) reported.

But inside the Theodore Roosevelt High School gymnasium for freshman orientation, at least some of those nerves had morphed into excitement.

Juniors and seniors were leading ninth-graders through team-building activities, then walking them through their class schedule. And before they left, students planned on exchanging phone numbers to text questions later on.

The new initiative is part of a nationally known program called Link Crew, which started at Roosevelt and was adopted as a district-wide high school program this year.

The effort pairs upperclassmen mentors with groups of freshman. As senior Bella Ostby said, "it brings people together."

What's unique about this initiative is the yearlong focus on peer mentoring that goes far beyond the first few days of lockers that won't open and classrooms that can't be found.

The idea is to build camaraderie and school spirit — and encourage ninth-graders to meet new friends or join activities that interest them. And Roosevelt's "Rider Crew" leads the way.

"It's kind of like the camp counselor philosophy and mentality," Roosevelt Principal Kevin Biggs said. "Our freshmen will be more comfortable around peers than they will be around adults."

At a similar orientation at North High School, DJ Wolf Pack, Harding Middle School's student DJ group, turned up the music before the day began.

Outside, freshmen could hear the beat and the commotion. They waited until a student leader walked out, stepped up on a table and welcomed them inside as the class of 2019.

Forming two lines, the juniors and seniors clapped and high-fived the ninth-graders as they made their way through the middle, a bit nervous and caught off guard by it all.

"The whole concept was to go big and really welcome the freshmen," Charles Mercer, the community school coordinator at North, said. "It's all about building excitement for what it means to be a Polar Bear."

While each Des Moines high school put its unique spin on the Link Crew program, there's also much in common. Small groups of freshmen are paired with student leaders who had been trained for the mentoring positions.

Student leaders, in turn, are charged with helping support incoming ninth-graders with their transition to high school.

"It's showing that being a freshman in high school can be an exciting and fun thing, and it doesn't have to be a stressful time in their lives," said Ethan Shafer, a junior at Roosevelt. "We want to celebrate them being new to the school."

Groups are designed so students meet individuals with different backgrounds and cultures. And they'll continue to meet during the school year, attending a football game or school dance together, or perhaps going bowling or to the movies.

The new program is expected to foster friendships and peer-to-peer support, from helping each other through a breakup to talking through concerns about fights with friends.

"A lot of times, students can talk to students about things that they may not feel comfortable talking to an adult about," said Allyson Vukovich, the district's community partnership coordinator.

"It really changes the culture within a building," she added, "so upperclassmen find some ownership about what goes on in their school."

There are other benefits, educators say. The connections are expected to boost a student's sense of well-being and their personal investment in school. And hopefully, improve student behavior and increase class attendance.

That's critical, given the importance of freshman year, when grades count toward admission to college or career training programs.

"It's that inaugural year of school that is rigorous and emotional," Biggs said. "It will decide, many times, how successful a student can be moving forward."


Information from: The Des Moines Register,

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MacKenzie Ryan


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