As the school year ends, Westport’s 8th graders begin the transition to Staples High.
Administrators, teachers and parents have started to prepare them. But the info the adults provide — on courses, curriculums and clubs — is not necessarily what rising freshmen want to hear.
They have more mundane, but crucially important, concerns: Where will I sit in the cafeteria? What happens if my locker is too far from my classes? Will I ever see my friends?
Link Crew knows all the answers. Not long ago, the 80 juniors and seniors were freshmen themselves.
Link Crew is a student mentorship program. The goal is to make the move from middle to high school — one of the most momentous of a teenager’s life — as easy as possible.
“We want the school to feel smaller,” says Jamie Pacuk, one of 3 passionate advisors. “Not everyone has an older sibling.”
English teacher Pacuk, physical education instructor Jeff Doornweerd and special education teacher Lauren Manosh are 3 very different people, inhabiting 3 very different Staples worlds.
That mirrors the Link Crew model. The advisors seek a diverse group of mentors. Together, they encompass nearly all of the many opportunities Staples offers.
The selection process is rigorous — including a video. “Someone might write well, but can they communicate clearly and easily, and speak from the heart?” Doornweerd asks. “If they’re not comfortable making their own video, how comfortable would they be relating in small groups to other people?”
Once selected, the 40 new juniors join 40 returning seniors in special training. (Every junior wants to return the next year, Manosh says proudly.)
This spring, mentors went to the middle schools to introduce the program. They also led tours, on a recent 8th grader visit.
In August they contact their small group of rising freshmen — and the students’ parents. They explain who they are, what they’ll be doing, and give them their phone numbers. “Text us any time!” they say.
Before opening day, Link Crews meet for orientation tours. Relationships take root, as freshmen realize they can ask the questions adults cannot — or would not think to — answer.
On the first day of school, Link Crew members wear special t-shirts. They check in with “their” 9th graders frequently, during those sometimes-overwhelming initial days.
The program continues throughout the year. Once a month, mentors do activities during the “Connections” period.
The background to Link Crew is as interesting as the program itself. Funded initially by a 2019-20 Staples and middle school PTA grants, the advisors began visiting schools that already used Link Crew (it’s part of a national program). Advisors’ training was set for April.
COVID closed school. But Pacuk, Doornweerd and Manosh persevered, setting up a virtual model for the 2020-21 school year. “We built the airplane as we flew it,” Doornweerd notes.
For freshmen beginning their Staples careers at a time of such uncertainty and flux, the program proved crucial. Even online, they felt they had gotten to know upperclassmen. Barriers between classes had been eased.
Pacuk, Doornweerd and Manosh love their 80 Link Crew mentors. “They’re very engaged,” Pacuk says. “They have a real enthusiasm for wanting to make Staples a better place, any way they can.”
The advisors hope to expand the program, adding activities like socials and exam study groups.
Meanwhile, despite starting a major new program in the midst of a pandemic, they tout its success.
“We’re a social species. This gives people their own ‘tribe,'” Manosh says.
“This is a big school,” Pacuk adds. “It’s important to feel part of something — to know you have a network of support.”
A little gesture — a text from a mentor, noting about a student’s absence from Connections — can go a long, long way. “It says, ‘Someone cares,'” Manosh says.