CCSD59 Students Take Pride in Mentoring Younger Learners
As we look back on our own education, particularly our elementary days, a whirlwind of new experiences may emerge in the memory. We learned new subjects, sharpened skills, and met new people, some of which become lifelong friends.
Those around us play a vital role in our educational lives. That includes our fellow students, teachers, administrators, and nearby families. They become the people we spend much of our young lives with, both inside the classroom and in extracurricular activities.
Volunteerism is a means to form those relationships and it is one that our students grasp often. While our learners are a regular sight in the community, some of our older students have found the chance to help out and give back to their younger counterparts. Two of our junior highs, Holmes and Grove, have established programs for their students to interact with and mentor children at nearby buildings.
At Holmes, seventh grade students have built a strong appreciation for volunteering under the guidance of assistant principal Jane Schwartz. In the past, these Hawks have been offered one day per year to dedicate to a public service trip. However, the opening of the Early Learning Center presents a new opportunity right next door.
“We, as a service committee, decided that service learning should be implemented more often,” said Schwartz. “Kids that have an interest in working with young children have this service opportunity in seventh grade.”
Each month, a handful of Holmes students spend part of their Friday at the ELC to help out in the STEAM lab, the gymnasium, and other classrooms. ELC students work on their motor skills in conjunction with “Young Athlete Friday” as part of the Special Olympics Young Athletes program.
While some Holmes volunteers assist with physical games and activities, others help ELC students put together model car tracks, color, learn to count and read, and more. The arrangement has produced a strong partnership between the two schools, one that Schwartz says gives her students an increased passion for working with children.
“I always get extremely positive feedback,” said Schwartz. “Students say, ‘When do I get to go again?’ Many stories are related about how they connected with students and they are excited when they can get a student who may struggle with communication to engage with them. They get students who are more shy to pull out of their shells.”
Holmes students are often surprised by how much their new ELC friends can already do.
“It’s fun to interact with them. We’re learning all their names, favorite colors, and all the little stuff they like to talk about,” said Ciara, a seventh-grade Holmes student. “I would definitely come back and volunteer again.”
The seeds of Grove’s mentorship for younger students also has its roots at Holmes, coincidentally. The buddy program was started by Margaret Ketterick, a physical education teacher at Grove, and Gina Udchik, a first grade teacher at Ridge. The two worked together on their physical education classes when Udchik was a teacher at Holmes.
When she moved to Ridge, the two saw the perfect opportunity to connect their students.
Grove students assist the Ridge students they are assigned with academic and physical activities throughout the year as part of the G.R.E.A.T Buddies Program.
The G.R.E.A.T Buddies Program followed (Grove-Ridge Engaging Activity Time). Nearly two dozen Grove students are assigned a buddy at Ridge with whom they stay in touch with throughout the school year. They write letters to each other to stay up-to-date on how classes are going and ask each other questions. Another feature of the program is allowing the students to meet face-to-face up to four times per year.
“Margaret and I know that children flourish when they are given the tools to engage in positive interactions,” said Udchik. “We enjoy teaching social-emotional strategies and problem solving techniques that will prepare students to be successful in life.”
The program is fueled by the belief that the interaction between these two age groups can yield a positive mentoring relationship. On the junior high side, it fosters patience, empathy, and perspective. For students at Ridge, the reward is another valuable older voice during a critical period in their education.
“The younger students learn socially acceptable behaviors and how to problem solve. They gain confidence in their communication and speech patterns. They cherish the friendships they have formed. Most importantly, they feel valued as individuals.”
The guidance displayed by Grove students extends to higher grade levels as well. A group of learners recently appeared before the CCSD59 Board of Education to celebrate their Students Onboard for Success program, which allows eighth grade students to mentor incoming sixth grade students. S.O.S. leaders currently run the sixth grade orientation, which includes leader training and kickoff days. They also work throughout the year on team-building activities to help the smooth transition into junior high continue.
These efforts strengthen the sense of community and teamwork between students of all ages within CCSD59. It plays a pivotal role in the learning experience of each of our learners and allows them to come away from each school day with new insight.
“What you just have to do is start up a conversation. That’s what (these students) are learning from us,” said Ramiro, an eighth grade student at Holmes. “When you start up the conversation, you’ll start having conversations with other people as you get older. They’ll start being happier and this helps us to be happier even if we’re having a bad day at school.”