Sept. 4, 2018 --
Rising middle schoolers all over the country harbor similar fears: Will I get lost going from class to class? Will I make new friends? Will I remember my schedule? Will I have too much homework?
And that near universal middle school worry: Will I be able to open my locker?
Teachers and administrators at Heights Middle School had these concerns in mind when they instituted the Where Everybody Belongs program
, a national initiative of the Boomerang Project that uses 8th grade "WEB Leaders" to act as mentors to incoming 6th graders.
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Four HMS teachers, Lia Radke and Rekyta Carr of Roxboro and Jason Jeske and Deborah Frost of Monticello, were trained in Detroit as WEB Coordinators. Last spring, they worked with teachers to identify 50 students to serve as WEB Leaders in their 8th grade year.
Ms. Radke explained that they weren't just looking for the usual superstars. "We didn’t necessarily want the kids who are great at everything: the most popular, the smartest, the best athlete. The point is for the 6th graders to look up and see someone who looks like them and performs like them, so they have an image of what kind of student they can become."
There was one prerequisite for participation in the program though: "The kids had to be nice. No teasing, no name calling, no meanness, ever."
The 8th grade leaders all feel proud at having been chosen. “I was so happy that they wanted me, me! Jayla! To help the little kids,” said Jayla Casey, who wishes that she’d had the WEB program when she was new to the district in 6th grade.
All 6th graders were assigned to a WEB leader who will serve as their mentor throughout the school year, with monthly activities and check-ins. The kick-off took place with two WEB Orientation Days the week before school started. Sixth graders were invited by letter from the school and by phone call from their mentor to attend one of two 3-hour sessions based on their last names.
“Most of my friends have last names in the first half of the alphabet,” said 6th grader Eleanor McMahon, “so I met new people.” She appreciated seeing more familiar faces on the first day and having a better sense of the building layout.
WEB mentors gave tours, shared advice about how to succeed and led the 6th graders in a series of games and activities.
“The games were fun,” said 6th grader Jamere Bowie. “We got to pop balloons with our butts and toss a basketball around.”
Ms. Radke explained that all the games had lessons hidden inside them. “We wanted the kids to feel like they were just playing even though they were learning important skills.”
Besides meeting new people, most 6th graders appreciated having yet another chance to tour the building. “Our guides were nice and funny,” said Lincoln Speidel. “Imagine how you would feel if you didn't know where anything was on the first day. What you don't know is scarier than what you do know.”
WEB Leader Noah Richardson was excited to lead activities but overwhelmed by the number of students who showed up. “I was one of the 8th graders welcoming kids at the door and they were like a stream that just kept coming.”
He and his fellow leaders all wish they had had something similar when they started middle school. Jada Strother laughed as she said, “I used to be afraid of 8th graders because they were so intimidating. But now I am one!”
“My 6th grade experience would have been ten times better with WEB,” said Ahyma Diggins.
That’s the goal for the current 6th grade class: that they have the tools they need to succeed and the support of older students who can guide them through this tough transition. Sixth grader Dametriana Blade loves that she has “older friends to pass in the hallways. Now I’ll know older kids when I get to high school too.”
If all goes well, these very students could one day become WEB leaders themselves. “I could hang out with the 6th graders and help them with what they need,” said 6th grade participant Liam Hodges. “That is something I definitely want to be.”