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Providing a link

Freshman mentor program reduces first day jitters and sets students up for success
by: vern uyetake Link Crew member Izzy Romero, at far left, helps freshmen, from second to left, Courtney Landis, Brianna Dyrdahl and Sidney Kolasinski at West Linn High School during their first day of school.

Nobody likes to be lost in a crowd -especially on the first day of school. And West Linn High School is taking steps to prevent that sense of confusion for this year's freshman class.

The school took its existing freshman orientation program and beefed it up. For the first time, only freshmen attended the first day of school on Sept. 6. The new students had time to learn the ropes without the crowds, and were assigned mentors to help them through the entire school year.

Freshman transition coordinator and Spanish and ESL teacher Jonathan Peachey knows what the first day at WLHS can be like; he graduated from the school in 1999. He then returned as a teacher in 2003.

Peachey holds a firm conviction that students need to feel part of the school community during their first year, or they may start to slip academically and socially.

Using the topic for his thesis, Peachey looked at the school's academic data. He said each year, about 30 to 60 kids fall behind during their freshmen year and have a hard time catching up and succeeding. The reason for their lag? Not feeling connected to the school.

'Most kids, when they mess up in high school, it happens in the first year. They felt lost,' he said. 'The goal is to have kids find something to connect to.'

In the past, the school was part of Link Crew, which is a national program. The program was volunteer only and was held in the summer. Only about 100 incoming freshmen would typically attend, according to Peachey. The program consisted of an upperclassman speaking to a group of incoming freshmen and telling them about the high school experience.

This year was all hands on. The program is new, but Peachey retained the name Link Crew for consistency.

On Sept. 6, when all the freshmen arrived in the morning, they had to run a gauntlet of sorts. Staff members, Link leaders and cheerleaders formed a long line down the hall and the approximately 400 freshmen walked through the gauntlet to enter the gym. The music was blaring and excitement was building.

On the first day, after an hour-and-a-half assembly filled with individual and character-building activities, the students split up into groups with their mentors.

Each mentor was assigned about five freshmen. The mentors will keep in touch with the freshmen both academically and socially throughout the year.

Mentors, who are juniors or seniors, must apply to be part of the program and must have GPAs in good standing. Out of the 250 applicants, 125 were selected this year. Peachey said the application process lasts a month and training started in May.

A week before school started, mentors received the names of their freshmen and were told to connect with them via telephone or Facebook.

At school, the mentors walked the freshmen around the school, showing them features, rules and how to behave.

'They learn what it is all about to be a freshman,' said Peachey.

Peachey lists four goals for WLHS students: 1. Be here and be engaged; 2. Choose your attitude; 3. Make somebody's day while you are here; and 4. Play and have fun.

Link Crew member Laura Davis said she wished the program would have been in place when she was a freshman. Although she attended the summer Link Crew program, she said she didn't get a lot out of it.

Davis said she struggled academically her first year in school and on the first day, 'I thought I was going to explode.'

Wanting to be a teacher after she graduates from college, being a Link mentor is a good fit for Davis.

'I really want to make them feel more welcome,' she said of the freshmen. 'I try hard to make it more interesting.'

Feeling a bit nervous on the first day, freshman Andrew Nelson said he was thankful for the mentor program. He said he was nervous about meeting people, having larger classes and making new friends.

Lexi Naone agrees. The freshman said, 'If everyone else was here, we would be lost.'

After the tours, the freshmen had lunch in the cafeteria, where Peachey encouraged all school staff to come and mingle with the students.

After lunch, the freshmen ran through an abbreviated version of the their six-period school day with 25-minute classes.

Nelson said the shortened periods were great because he could get a sense of who was in his classes and what they would be like.

'It's really centered around making them feel welcome and comfortable,' Peachey said.

Besides the warm welcome and introduction to the school, the mentors will keep in touch with their group of freshmen throughout the school year.

Peachey said a new aspect added this year is an academic perspective. If a student is having a rough time in a class, the mentor can set him or her up with a tutor in the academic center.

The goal of the mentor program is to make the incoming students feel like they are part of a community.

'That's what is so different about West Linn High School,' Peachey said. 'The community and the connections are just so strong here. It is such a great relationship and strong community. This mentorship program is just another piece of it.'

Peachey hopes the program will grow and expand to the students entering middle school to help with that transition.