According to Monticello High School Assistant Principal John Reeves, the Monti school district set out a couple of years ago looking to make a change.
It has long been known that the transition from middle school to high school can be a challenging and stressful time, one with kids walking wide-eyed into a huge, unfamiliar school, feeling small compared to the huge, unfamiliar seniors sharing the hall with them.
So, Monticello searched for a way to improve the experience.
“We set out a couple of years ago, looking for an intentional and meaningful way to create a positive transition into the high school setting for our freshman,” said Reeves, in a sit down with the Monticello Times this fall. “What we wanted to do was to help, or allow them to be as successful as they could be.”
What they came up with were two different ideas, that they decided to mesh into one.
First, said Reeves, came the idea of a freshman only first day of school.
That would allow the freshman to come in and work out the first-day problems (finding their locker, transitions between classes, working their way through the lunch room) in a less-crowded and more relaxed environment.
Then the faculty thought of the Youth Frontiers program, a group that Monti has partnered with in the past to teach kids about issues such as respect.
“We thought, ‘why wouldn’t we want to bring them back to kick off the year with that being the theme of what we want these kids to get,’” said Reeves.
And so it was decided. Starting last year, Monti would host a freshman only first day of school in partnership with Youth Frontiers, who would take the kids through a full day of activities, stories and lessons, to get them acquainted with the school and physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the year ahead.
But, the school wasn’t satisfied with just that.
Peer Mentors Arrive
When talking to Youth Frontiers about the first day of school program, the two sides came up with the idea of bringing peer mentors into the equation. The thought was that if Monticello could get juniors and seniors that would come to the opening day activities, and then continue to serve as a guide for freshman throughout the year, it would be a much more beneficial and long-reaching program.
“[We wanted to] put students in front of them that are making the right decisions,” said Reeves, adding they were trying to create a culture of acceptance at the school. “If you can put the people that might [otherwise] be intimidating to freshman in front of them, it can provide a welcoming environment.”
Relying on teachers to set up a formula for picking students that seemed ripe for success in the peer mentor role, Monti selected approximately 60 upperclassmen to work with the freshman class during the first year.
The upperclassmen signed up for the program for a myriad of reasons, including wanting to give freshman the same positive experience they had and others wanting to help give freshman the opposite experience they had.
Jack Sampson, who joined the program in 2016 as a junior, was in the latter group.
“When I was in ninth grade all of our schedules were messed up on the first day so my first day of ninth grade was absolutely awful,” he said. “So I really wanted to help them to make sure they didn’t have that same experience.”
Overall, Reeves said he would give the 2015 program a B+.
Orientation day, he said, would get an A.
“It was incredible,” said Reeves. “A very, very good experience.”
But they also found some things they could tweak throughout the year. The mentors met with their student groups once a month, and everyone involved found that got to be a little bit much.
“It became old,” said Reeves. “And that’s what you don’t want to happen with any program.”
So, Monti decided to move closer to a once every two month meeting schedule this year. They also found that the best situation is to split the students up into small groups with their mentors, rather than having everybody come together at once. But finding that there is a happy medium, they plan on going with two mentor groups together (approximately two mentors and 12 students) this year.
The greatest indicator that the program was a success, despite the small missteps that Monti realized throughout the year, was the return rate among peer mentors this year.
“Not one kid that was a junior mentor last year didn’t want to be a part of it this year,” said Reeves. “That’s pretty cool. There were frustrations but they stuck with it and recognized the value in it.”
Several of those peer mentors sat down with the Monticello Times last week as well, and shared why they found the program so worthwhile.
“The program really, I felt like, helped that grade come together [last year],” said senior Taylor Arthur. “So I wanted to come back again.”
Fellow senior Carlee Obermaier agreed the choice to come back to the program was an easy one.
“I heard a lot of positive feedback from the freshmen last year,” she said. “That is kind of what brought me back. I want to be that person they can come up to and approach.”
Preparing for Year Two
To get ready for a second go-around, Monti faculty that helps with the program (Derek Swart, Amy Friedrichs, Erik Hanson, Joe Rosh, Brett Krohn, Joey Siemieniak, Nathan Herfindahl, Cassie Hamrin, Tara Storts and Reeves) took all of the peer mentors out to Camp Friendship in Annandale for team building. Teachers and students both participated in going through a ropes course and other team building activities.
The mentors all agreed it was a very beneficial exercise.
“You didn’t get to pick your groups, you got put together,” said Arthur. “I got to know people that I didn’t necessarily talk to as much. It was just a lot of fun to work together.”
Obermaier said the support that day, from peers and teachers alike, was awesome.
“Everyone was so encouraging and supportive,” she said. “It was great. It was a good day.”
First Day, Take Two
Last Tuesday, approximately 300 freshman entered under the big arching awning and into the high school for the first time as students. There to greet them were nearly 60 smiling junior and senior faces, additional MHS staff, and a group of Youth Frontiers members.
The day started with kids taking the bus in, just like they would on a normal school day. After a brief big group meeting, the kids went through a very abbreviated version of their daily schedule. They spent a little bit of time in each classroom, getting to know teachers, and then spent time going from class to class, learning the best route between each stop.
Once students had made it through all seven classes, they returned to the common areas of the school. Half of the group went to Main Street, half into the fieldhouse. Both groups were again greeted by the smiling faces of Youth Frontiers and of their upperclassmen mentors.
During the course of the next five hours, kids took part in activities, listened to stories, sang, danced, shared stories of their own and came together.
The peer mentors said that the whole experience can be a lot for the freshmen at the start, but that they can be seen warming up as the day moves along.
“It was really fun,” said senior mentor Jada Harley. “Everyone was kind of uncomfortable, because they make you do things you’re not used to doing. They make you dance and sing and yell. But you could see them slowly get used to it. People started to actually participate.”
Reeves said that once Youth Frontiers is able to get kids to drop their guard a little bit, they try to instill meaningful messages and generate real conversations.
“There’s a lot of silliness and there’s a lot of fun,” said Reeves, who drew rave reviews himself from the mentors for his work in getting this program going and sticking with it. “But then there’s a lot of intentional activities aimed at getting to the heart of what Youth Frontiers is all about.”
The biggest payoff, according to Reeves, is at the end with what Youth Frontiers calls a campfire session.
“Kids get up and talk about ways in which they either want to be more respectful or ways they’ve struggled with it. Kids go up and let it all loose. And that’s the goal,” he said.
Amanda Scherber, another senior peer mentor at MHS, said watching the process play out during the day was something special.
“The highlight of my day was watching the kids grow,” she said. “I thought it was really cool to see their brains working.”
One thing that all mentors agreed on was that the freshman were enraptured by the program.
“You can look around and you can just see everyone, no one is being disrespectful and like oh this is stupid, everyone is listening and actually intrigued by what they’re saying,” said Obermaier. “You could just tell the impact it was making on them.”
A Success, So Far
Maybe the most positive feedback so far comes from the mentors, who say they can only imagine how helpful a program like this would’ve been for them.
“I remember my freshman year, the first couple of weeks, I was always so scared,” said Scherber. “The school is so big, well it’s not really, but that’s how I felt back then. I was very nervous. I think this helped the freshman a lot, getting to see that we can help them.”
“I wish that I had this. I absolutely hated my first day of freshman year. I thought that high school was just going to be awful. My first day I was confused, I didn’t know where I was. Nobody stopped to help me,” said Harley. “I wish I had this on the first day, I think it would’ve been really beneficial.”
But for Monti, even though the first day, and a successful one at that, is in the books, the work is far from done.
Reeves said that Monti’s greatest failure would be to reach out to these kids on day one but to not maintain contact going forward. So, they will. The peer mentor groups will meet, and Monticello will offer other chances for large group get-togethers, such as at a Feed My Starving Children event, or at a year-end party for the freshmen and the mentors.
And it will all be done with the same idea that started it all, improving the transition, and most importantly, the learning experience for freshman students.
“We are oftentimes at our best when we are comfortable and we can flourish in that setting,” said Reeves. “When you have obstacles in the way for kids, it is really hard to allow them to have academic success. So if we can do anything to break down those roadblocks to success for kids, and we see this as one of those, then I think we see the fruition.”
“Our job is to prepare these young men and women from the time they’re 14 or 15 until the time they graduate for the next step,” he said. “We have the ability to really leave an impression on lives and that starts the first day when they come into our schools. And we can’t misuse that platform. I think we have to make an intentional effort to impact lives. That’s what I think our district is about, and this is a part of that. This is our ability as a high school to create that environment where they can flourish academically and socially.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]