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Leading by example

WEB program eases the transition into middle school, gives eighth-graders volunteer experience

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - In an game called 'People, Tiger, Trap,' a spoof on 'Rock, Paper, Scissors,' Alana Saul, left, pretends to be a tiger, while Taylor Jacobs, right, pretends to be a human. Students played the game one on one and in groups during Thursday morning's WEB workshop.The first day of middle school can be a scary place.

A new school, a new set of classes, the dreaded locker combo to memorize. It can be overwhelming for the average 12-year-old.

The WEB program at St. Helens Middle School is helping change that.

WEB, which stands for “Where Everyone Belongs,” pairs one eighth-grade student leader with a small group of seventh-grade students on the first day of school. The WEB leader’s job as a mentor is to help the younger kids find classrooms, assist with tricky locker openings, and offer a friendly face in a new place.

Student leaders went through two days of workshops this week in preparation for the start of school next Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Chris Robitz, a social studies teacher at the middle school, led the kids through exercises that helped build communication and team-building — games and actitivies that the WEB leaders will use throughout the year.

Robitz and Mark Janke, the dean of students, have been running the program together since 2008. Robitz helped implement the program in 2006 when it was first brought into the school. Robitz said he has seen a lot change in the program over the years, but the implementation in the school schedule is the most obvious.

The student-to-student mentoring program goes back several years. The school adopted the program in 2009, and despite budget cutbacks over the years, teachers and administrators have managed to keep it going.

This year, 43 total WEB leaders will be matched up with 210 incoming seventh-graders. The incoming students are broken into groups ranging from two to 10 students.

Kristen Jones, an eighth-grader, is one of this year’s WEB leaders. A member of the band and basketball team, she hopes to make a difference this year as a mentor.

“I know how the seventh-graders feel,” Jones said. “I know how I felt and how scared I was.”

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Chris Robitz, a social studies teacher, explains the directions of a team building game to a group of students. The eighth-grade WEB leaders worked together for six hours the week before school starts to learn team-building exercises they will use with their small groups next week. Robitz and Janke said the program is all about instilling a sense of care into the school day. WEB students wear matching shirts on the first day of school, creating a “sea of red,” Janke said. Teachers and staff also wear WEB shirts, which help give the new students a sense of who they can turn to for help.

“[They have] somebody that they’ve seen before school even starts, so that on that first day, when they’re all tense and scared, that they always know they can grab that person,” Robitz said.

Due to budget cuts, the program’s funding has been reduced, negatively affecting the program’s yearlong implementation. The program fills a special role, since activities like student council and other leadership classes aren’t in place, according to Janke.

“With the eighth-graders, it’s their first attempt at volunteerism,” Janke said. “With the seventh-graders, it makes that first day a safe place.”

Student WEB leaders are selected based on teacher and staff recommendations, student applications, and the final approval of Janke and Robitz, who pick students based on a range of personalities, grades and achievement.

Robitz said picking a range of students is key in the mentoring process.

“Your 10 kids will be a cross section of the school,” Robitz said. “You can be a leader in a lot of different ways, maybe not just in school.”

This is the second year seventh-grade students will start one day before the eighth-grade students do. The first day of school is less about academics and more about getting acquainted for the students, Janke said. In the mornings, students go to their regular classes and meet with their teachers. In the afternoon, WEB mentors go with their mentees and work in small groups in some of the eighth-grade teachers’ classrooms.

“It’s a new environment, a new school. They don’t know anything,” Alana Saul, an eighth-grade student and mentor, said. “It’s nice to help them [the new students] and get to know their surroundings and be a friend for them.”