Tag Archives: Link Crew

Link Crew: A Freshman Lifeline

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.

A small number of the 80 Link Crew members.

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.

Leading a recent tour for 8th graders. The Link Crew shirts say “We’ll be there for you.”

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.

In 2020, Emily Epstein and Owen Dolan introduced Link Crew to freshmen via video.

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.

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.”