Tag Archives: Bill Plunkett

New Staples Program Links 9th Graders, Upperclassmen

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.

Emily Epstein and Owen Dolan introduced Link Crew to freshmen via video.

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.”

 

 

All’s Well With Staples Midterms

Midterm exams are stressful for high school students. In recent years, as the importance of grades — both real and imagined — has risen, so have student stress levels.

Last week at Staples, staff and administrators — prompted by Student Assembly, and supported by the Collaborative Team — addressed midterms directly. In fact, proponents noted, reducing stress can actually raise test-takers’ scores.

Guidance counselors Leslie Hammer and Bill Plunkett, physical education department chair Dave Gusitsch and others created a broad menu of “Midterm Wellness and Enrichment Activities.” Students could choose any (or none) of them during last week’s midterms.

And — tweaking the no-room-to-breathe schedule that had been in place for decades — those activities took place during a 50-minute period between each day’s 2 exams. Previously, the break was just 30 minutes.

Organizers learned that high schools and universities around the country have brought in “therapy dogs,” for students to pets. Research shows that playing with animals is a great way to relax and clear the mind.

Petting dogs has been shown to release endorphins in the brain, leading to relaxed feelings.

Petting dogs has been shown to release endorphins in the brain, leading to relaxed feelings.

The dogs were a smash. Students lined up to chill with the friendly, tail-wagging pooches. One student — whose stress sometimes caused her to have tics — said she’d never felt better in a school environment.

Some activities were physical. There was basketball and track walking in the fieldhouse; badminton and “pound fitness” (drumming) in the gym; free swim in the pool, dance in the pool lobby, and ping pong near the cafeteria. The fitness center was open for cardio, free weights and machine exercise; yoga was in a library classroom, and principal James D’Amico offered “walk and talk” sessions around the school.

Emerson Anvari chose ping pong as a way to reduce midterm stress.

Emerson Anvari chose ping pong as a way to reduce midterm stress.

Some options — liked “guided meditation” — were more mindful.

Other activities appealed to special passions. String players were invited to the orchestra room to play Mozart; Players director David Roth directed theater games, while some students played board games.

David Roth got students up and moving with theater games.

David Roth got students up and moving with theater games.

In addition, guidance counselors offered free snacks. Healthy food was on sale in the cafeteria. That was a first for midterms — and sales were brisk.

Guidance counselors provided snacks -- and positive messages from a bowl.

Guidance counselor Deb Slocum (left) and colleagues provided snacks — and positive messages from a bowl.

No one was forced to choose an activity. Some students studied in the library, or chatted with friends in the hall.

Fifty minutes between exams allowed students time to study in the library -- and relax, eat healthily and participate in activities too.

Fifty minutes between exams allowed students time to study in the library — and relax, eat healthily and participate in activities too.

Everyone seemed influenced by the environment. Early skepticism was replaced by increasing enthusiasm to try something new, day by day.

Guidance counselor Deb Slocum noted, “The entire mood of the school shifted. It was a great vibe.”

Colleague Bill Plunkett added, “There was a lot of positive energy — and plenty of smiles. Even the kids just sitting around felt relaxed.”

Not every kid got an A+ on every test.

But Staples’ newest midterm tradition passed with flying colors.

“Pound fitness” is a full-body cardio jam session, perfect for de-stressing between exams.

(Photos courtesy of Victoria Capozzi and Dave Gusitsch)