Helping newcomers feel at home at a new school

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New pupils streamed in throughout the school year, oftentimes arriving without anyone to sit with at lunch, talk to on the bus or show them the ropes at Mount Airy Elementary School.

Concerned that too many children in the fast-growing area and crowded school were getting thrown into a new classroom without the same doting attention paid to newcomers at the beginning of the school year, guidance counselor Ann Horner decided to make welcoming midyear newcomers a little more hospitable.

"I felt like we were getting to the point that new students were coming in so frequently that it was almost like, 'Oh, here's another new student,' and they kind of got lost in the shuffle," she said. "I felt like it would be really beneficial to have some students who were trained to be a buddy for these kids."

Horner's program- named the Cardinal Companion to reflect Mount Airy Elementary's mascot - is one of several initiatives Carroll schools are taking to smooth the transition for students switching schools.

"Moving itself is a difficult time for kids," said Barbara Guthrie, guidance supervisor for the Carroll public school system. "Moving becomes even harder when it involves changing schools as well. They're leaving behind friends and a known school and teachers they know. ... They're saying goodbye, basically, goodbye to the life they knew."

Parents have always had to move their families during the school year and teachers at the new school have always had to find ways to accommodate their new charges.

But the challenge of squeezing in more desks, catching up new students and getting to know new faces has become more frequent in fast-growing suburban school districts, such as Carroll's.

Schools have tried to adapt by thinking up new welcome tactics for students who start school midyear, by sharing with parents tips to ease children's worries caused by a move and by beefing up the orientations for sixth-graders and ninth-graders, who have just made the big jumps from elementary to middle school and middle to high school.

Staff at Hampstead's Spring Garden Elementary started surveying fifth-graders about their concerns as they graduated to middle school.

Staffers at nearby Shiloh Middle School used the survey results to tailor their back-to-school and transition activities to address pupils' most common worries.

Ice cream socials

Some schools have started back-to-school ice-cream socials and welcome picnics to which students bring their entire families. "What a great way to meet your new teacher - when she's giving you a hotdog instead of homework," Guthrie said.

Other schools have suggested that parents acclimate children to a new school as much in advance as possible of their first day there, whether that means going out of the way to drive by the new building or taking children to the new school's playground over the summer.

Once students have started at the new school, parents should help their children sign up for as many of the same activities as possible, from the school softball team to the drama club.

Guthrie, who moved last month with her family from Westminster to a new home in Finksburg, took time this spring to attend a play with her son at Sandymount Elementary, where he will start first grade next month.

She introduced him to the administrators at his new school and has added trips to the school's playground to his summer activities.

Horner, of Mount Airy Elementary, and Jenny Lewis, a guidance counselor at Eldersburg's Linton Springs Elementary, teamed up last summer to address their schools' problems - new pupils arriving to register for classes throughout the year.

Buddies

In its inaugural year, the Cardinal Companions program was deemed a success, Horner said.

By pairing newcomers with an appointed buddy, teachers knew they would have someone to help them locate bathrooms and their locker, to sit with at lunch, to show them around the school and introduce them to new friends.

"Then, the teacher wouldn't necessarily have to think of all of this for each new student," she said. "And it made a big difference for the new student who was a little shy about letting go of their parents. Now, that was taking place at the office with another student, so the new child went more readily with the student and the separation point being farther away from the classroom. If you're closer to the classroom door, it's harder to let go of your parent when you're facing all those new faces at once."

The children trained to be Cardinal Companions gained self-confidence and a newfound pride in their school, Horner said.

"They felt really special," she added. "There were students who came in with their little clipboard and the checklist of everything they were supposed to do with a big grin on their faces. They were just very proud to be a part of that process."

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