Transitions to new schools can be tough. For teenagers, the move from middle to high school can seem particularly daunting.
Since 1983 — the year 9th graders first moved to Staples — Westport educators have helped make freshmen comfortable in their new building. Meetings, tours, club fairs and more have all been part of the process.
But when the high school’s School Climate Committee recommended a more sustained, ongoing orientation approach, administrators and teachers went to work.
A national program called Link Crew seemed ideal. Lasting a full year, using upperclassmen as mentors, it promised the support and personal connections with school-age peers that 9th graders need.
A group visited Newtown and Hall-West Hartford Highs, where the program has thrived. They adapted it for Staples.
Three teachers — Jeff Doornweerd, Lauren Manosh and Jamie Pacuk — were identified as advisors. Guidance department head Bill Plunkett calls them “amazing, energetic, dedicated and warm. They’re exactly who you’d want as a the face of Staples for incoming students.”
Assistant principal Chase Dunlap recruited 120 rising juniors and seniors. Staples and middle school PTA grants paid for advisor training.
Link Crew was all set to debut in August, with 2 days of social interaction and hands-on activities.
COVID shut all that down.
Despite the hurdles — and with less than half the school on campus on any given day — the Link Crew crew went to work. With creativity, persistence and problem-solving, they started the program.
Orientation sessions (masked and socially distanced) were held before school began. They’d been conducted in past years too. Link Crew’s, though, are more comprehensive and structured.
Freshmen toured in small groups with the mentors who would follow them all year. They’d already met online, through Zoom sessions that included ice-breakers and fun activities.
In a non-pandemic year, there would be more in-person meetings, and team-building activities. This year they’re improvising, using the weekly Connections period to get together virtually.
Schools with ongoing Link Crew programs have social events. That’s still ahead (perhaps virtually), along with more mentor training, and guest speakers, once Staples returns to normal.
Still, in an abnormal year the first-year program has worked well. “”Mentors have done a great job checking in with their groups of 3 to 5 freshmen through email and texts,” Doornweerd notes.
“It could be just a simple thing, like asking for an emoji of how their firs day of school went. They’ve also been running small group activities.”
While Link Crew’s focus is helping freshmen feel safe, secure and informed, there’s another benefit: leadership development for mentors.
“They represent a cross-section of the student body,” Plunkett says. “We hope they all go back to their friend circles and activities, and infuse the Link Crew values there. This really can shift the culture in a meaningful way.”
“Some of the mentors have never held a leadership role, never been a club member of thought they had any leadership potential,” Manosh adds. “But they all had in common a desire to help incoming freshmen have a positive transition through their guidance.
“It has been inspiring to see the mentors step up to the task, embrace their role and lead their classmates through the year with the same enthusiasm they came to training and ran orientation with.”