Ten-year-old Nicole Fewster knows just how cruel kids can be.

She's heard all the timeless school-yard taunts -- "sissy," "stuck-up," "goody-goody" -- and she's seen classmates pick on others until they were close to tears.

But after training to become a "peer helper," Nicole vowed to be different from the rest of the crowd next year. She plans to show newcomers around school, invite shy classmates to join her at lunch and help struggling students with their homework.

Sitting on a window ledge and munching Cheese Puffs, the fifth-grader at Meade Heights Elementary School talked about "sharing and all when your friend has a problem." She already sounded like a counselor. All she needed was a yellow legal pad.

Nicole signed up for the four-day training program at Jessup Elementary School this week because she heard it could be her last chance.

Strapped by a tight budget, the school administration has proposed a number of cuts, including reducing counselors' work schedules. School counselors would work 10 months instead of year round and receive a corresponding pay cut.

Counselors like Annette Taylor, who works at Jessup Elementary and helped coordinate this week's training session, say the cut would jeopardize the peer helperprogram. Without summer sessions for more intensive training, they couldn't have students trained as peer helpers on hand when school starts and new students arrive, Taylor said.

The teachers union is fighting the proposal, one of several items that brought negotiations to a standstill earlier this year.

Taylor has been teaching students to become peer helpers for five years. This summer, she decided to coordinate the program with counselors from Meade Heights, West Meade, Harman and Van Bokkelen elementary schools.

Fifteen children between ages 7 and 11 were selected for the program. They read a handbook entitled "Becoming a Friendly Helper" and sat in a circle talking about active listening techniques. They acted out scenes, pretending that they were meeting for the first time. They learned how to make new friends and how to offer help.

"We have a lot of military children in the area, so there's a constant turnover in the schools," said Leona Munoz, counselor at West Meade and Meade Heights. "That's why it's very, very important that we have this for the students to adjust."

Peer helpers are trained to help new children find their way around, so they won't wind up isolated and lonely. They also assist students in kindergarten through fourth grade who are struggling with their homework assignments or failing classes.

Teachers and counselors choose a variety of students to become peer helpers, Munoz said. Some are straight-A scholars like Susan Brzozowski, a 10-year-old at Jessup who helps her teachers grade papers. Others are shy, talented students like Jennifer Cronin, a 6-year-old at Harman who knows sign language.

By helping other students, they build self-esteem and frequently improve their own grades, Taylor said. Peer helpers also develop more school pride, she said.

"Their self-esteem is raised and they get a lot more out of school," Munoz agreed.

She looked at the group before her with a grin, then clicked her gold sandals together and led the children in a dancing parade to the center of the room.There, they followed Jennifer's signing, and sang the song of peer helpers. It was a song of friendship, a catchy rhyme about everybody having them. Even the boys wanted to sing the refrain.

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