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Indian Hills Eighth Grader Mentors Make Sixth Graders Feel Welcome

Nov 06, 2015 10:32AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

By Julie Slama

Sandy - When Canyons School District reconfigured their schools three years ago, bringing sixth grade to middle school and ninth grade to high school, former Indian Hills Middle School principal Floyd Stensrud had concerns.

“I worried that the eighth-grade students might fall through the cracks when they became ninth-grade students, meaning that they would suffer academically,” said Stensrud, who now is the district’s planning and enrollment director.

Working together with Alta High principal Brian McGill and district counselor Tori Gillett, they formulated a plan to coordinate and collaborate between the two schools.

“We all felt strongly that a connection needed to be made between the two schools in order for our students to remain successful,” he said.

So this year, Alta launched its LINK Crew, allowing upperclassmen to mentor its freshmen, and at Indian Hills, students, teachers and counselors introduced WEB, Where Everyone Belongs, which has eighth graders helping sixth graders, thus tying the program to hook the two schools together, Stensrud said.

“Teachers from both schools meet yearly to coordinate efforts and see each other’s world, so that there is a deeper understanding of academic and social needs that may have been missed otherwise, in addition to a mentoring piece that will keep the kids safe from bullying and establish a community of caring,” he said.

Teachers Samantha Sirrine and Katie Falk head the mentoring training program at Indian Hills, along with counselor Melissa Jones and school psychologist Brandon Segura, who oversees student guidance. 

The program began last spring when these educators attended training. In the summer, they, in turn, trained eighth graders who welcomed the sixth graders during orientation in August.

“Incoming eighth graders were identified by staff and faculty as being possible mentors and were sent letters, and many of our students saw ‘Come Get Caught in the WEB’ signs that invited students to learn what WEB was all about,” Sirrine said. “Some of the students who stepped up to be leaders were top leaders in the school, and some were students who may have been failing classes but wanted to make a difference.”

Falk said that WEB has helped those students to become leaders, do better in class and set examples for younger students.

“They’ve learned to take ownership of their role and communicate,” she said. “They’re wanting to change the culture of our school to make everyone feel welcome and accepted.”

As part of the WEB program, eighth-grade mentors helped with sixth-grade orientation, from team-building activities to school tours. The students divided into groups and leaders created themes for their groups, from Hawaiian to Minions.

“At first, many of them were shy and nervous and worried about having to call other students to invite them to orientation,” Sirrine said.

With all the social media, Falk said it’s unusual for students to actually make calls with a phone.

“It’s almost special for sixth graders to get a phone call now-a-days. We prepped the eighth graders for how a sixth grader would react, from being excited to feeling forced to attend orientation, but we realized these students could relate to one another better than we expected,” she said.

During the orientation, Sirrine said it was good to watch eighth graders become school leaders.

“They were so excited and it was fun to see their dynamics. They gave the sixth graders strategies how to survive middle school, such as not to share their locker combination and how to ask for help,” she said.

During the year, the mentors will teach mini-lessons in school strategies, as well as offer community service and social opportunities. For example, the WEB program will be over the school recycling program and help National Junior Honor Society with peer tutoring. They also will help with the school’s kindness campaign and hold social events during the year.

Sirrine also said that the mentors will check in periodically with the sixth graders.

“When we hear of sixth graders who may be struggling with a class or some issue, we’ll have the mentors check in to see how things are going. Often, we learn that these WEB leaders can solve it on their own,or will go back and double check to make sure things are going OK for these younger students,” she said.

Falk said that’s because often sixth graders feel more comfortable talking to their peers.

“They’ve seen these students in the hall and feel more comfortable talking to someone their own age. We’ve had less issues at lunch as ‘Where do I go?’ or ‘What do I do?’ because these mentors are there, helping. Same with knowing how to find a class or open a lock or asking for help,” she said.

At the same time as mentoring the sixth graders, Falk said these WEB leaders are learning to speak up, listen, build confidence, show communication skills, interact and collaborate with others, organize themselves and build life and social skills to become a well-developed person.

“It’s a program about positivity and changing our school culture, and we’re already seeing that start,” Falk said.

Stensrud said that to support the program, teachers Dave Selin and Ronald Halbert run an after-school program to help students who are at risk in three or more areas concerning attendance, grades and office referrals.

“Parents are an integral part of this whole program. Without parental support, this after-school program would not fly. National Junior Honor Society students volunteer to stay after school and assist these students with homework. We had great success with this last year. This is a secondary part to the WEB program, but a very important part the teachers and I created before WEB came along,” he said.

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