The transition from elementary to middle school can be challenging. Finding even one friend can make the transition easier. And being part of a network—or web—of support within the school can help even more.
This philosophy drives the Where Everybody Belongs (WEB) mentorship program in our middle schools. A middle school version of the LINK mentorship program at our high schools, it is designed to empower students to be leaders and community builders, Shuksan Middle School WEB coordinator and language arts teacher Erin Meese said.
“The point is to deputize your students to build the kind of culture you want to see,” she said.
Younger students receive mentoring and build connections, while older students gain leadership experience.
WEB focuses its efforts on empowering older students to connect with and mentor incoming sixth graders. Last spring, Shuksan staff identified around 40 student mentors. These eighth-grade students, along with a few seventh graders, participated in ten hours of training over the summer.
Then, in August, all sixth graders were personally invited to a day-long orientation that included teambuilders, small group activities and tours. Meese said the three hopes for sixth graders after orientation were that they would feel safe, informed, and connected at school.
“I don’t think WEB is a cure-all, but it’s a really great step in the right direction,” Meese said. “The fact it is student-led makes me love it even more.”
Each mentor has a group of students they keep in touch with socially and academically. Student mentors shared a desire to smooth the way for sixth graders, remembering themselves how tough the transition could be. “I came (to Shuksan) halfway through sixth grade, so I felt confused,” Jonah Brinkerhoff said.
Sonali Rughani wanted to become a mentor to help sixth graders with “that sense of loneliness and that you can’t connect with everyone.”
Fellow mentor Edwin Garcia agreed. “When I came to Shuksan I was new, and it was hard to transition from elementary school,” he said. His message to his mentees is, “be yourself and try hard in school; don’t try to be the popular kid. Do what you love.”
Administrators, teachers, and students report that the year started off more smoothly and community built more quickly than in years past. “Teachers resoundingly reported it was the calmest first day of school ever,” Meese said.
Kulshan administrators reported a similar result in their school, which began WEB as well this fall. Counselor Aaron Tiger called WEB “a game-changer.”
Kulshan assistant principal Kevin Terpstra shared that he believes interpersonal conflicts resulting in need for adult intervention were down across the school, and attributed this to the increase in connection and community among students through WEB.
In early December, Kulshan students led the school board and other Bellingham Public Schools leaders in teambuilding exercises and talked about their experience as mentors. Students shared stories about how their bright t-shirts made them helpful resources for teachers and other students alike on the first day of school.
“It was like having an army of helpers,” Kulshan WEB co-coordinator Lacey Bachman said. “Look for the yellow shirt!”
Social activities have continued through the year, with mentors visiting classes for academic support and organizing lunchtime interest tables and trivia contests. Mentors spend time greeting students, touching base, and asking them how school is going.
“It’s helped my mentees a lot,” Sonali Rughan said.
Lena Zender agreed, and connected her work as a mentor to the well-known “starfish story.” “You can’t save everyone,” she said, “but you will be able to touch some and make the year different for them.”