Peer mentors all set for sixth-graders

The Baltimore Sun

Eighth-grader Paige Bray considers herself an expert on middle school, so she has been practicing a spiel designed to ease the transition for incoming sixth-graders.

"Don't act too hyper and make people nervous," the Corkran Middle School student says. "And you can't come in and try to be, like, all popular or else you lose your old friends. I tried to do that and it didn't work, and I lost a lot of friends. But I'm slowly getting them back now."

It's the kind of advice new middle schoolers likely won't receive from the adults in the building, but Paige is planning to dole out a lot of it as one of more than 35 peer mentors trained at Corkran Middle in Glen Burnie this summer.

As educators try to address the delicate transition from elementary to middle school and middle to high, four Anne Arundel County schools are asking older students to counsel their younger peers in an effort to improve behavior, stave off disillusionment and ultimately improve academic performance.

The Kick-Off Transition Program, started by an Indiana high school tennis coach a decade ago, started at Arundel High School in 2005. After hearing of the program's success there, administrators at Annapolis and Glen Burnie high schools are following suit, and Corkran will be the first middle school to try it out.

"Ninth grade is that critical year, kind of rocky, just like sixth grade in middle school -- that's when they're trying to figure out their identity, see who they'll be spending time with, what their interests are," said Chasity McGhee, an Arundel High assistant principal who runs the mentoring program there. "If you can put positive influences in their path in that first year, it can affect the way the rest of their time in middle school or high school goes."

At Arundel, juniors and seniors call underclassmen, their proteges, over the summer and give them advice for the first weeks of school. When school starts, they guide them to classes, show them their lockers and help with classwork if they're struggling. McGhee said the program helps alleviate the isolation that new, younger students sometimes feel when they enter high school.

"You see the underclassmen and upperclassmen talking in the cafeteria now," she said. "There's a relationship there, and it's going to have an effect on academics later on because succeeding in school is about having those strong relationships."

The transition can be awkward in middle school as well -- when students just out of elementary school are asked to adjust to changing classes, reading schedules, remembering locker combinations and navigating hallways in campuses that are often twice the size of their previous schools.

Lee Lonzo, the coach-founder of the Kick Off Transition Program, was at Corkran on Wednesday to show the mentors how to use ice-breaker activities to get middle schoolers to open up on the first day of school, which will be Aug. 27 for sixth- and ninth-graders.

"The first two things you do, and these are the most important, are: Smile and make eye contact," he told his trainees. Then, he chided softly: "Only two of you did that with me this morning. I had to go into the bathroom and cry to myself." The group giggled apologetically.

They were a hodgepodge -- lacrosse and football players, cheerleaders, musicians, bookworms -- 13- and 14-year-olds recommended for the program last spring by teachers who said they showed leadership qualities in class.

During the school year, they said they sit in different parts of the cafeteria, but they sacrificed one day of summer vacation together and spent six hours shedding inhibitions and ignoring cliques to learn what it means to be a mentor.

Lonzo had them don a large orange Stetson hat. He had them do funny dances, answer questions about themselves (who likes country music and who can count to 10 in a foreign language) and play games. These tactics have worked for Lonzo, who has helped train peer mentors in 170 middle and high schools in 22 states.

"We're going to do some silly, stupid things, but if you get through this, you will be part of a special club that will have more than 9,000 new members next week," he said.

Eighth-grader Laricia Mike didn't need convincing. She said she wanted to become a mentor after having a tough sixth-grade experience in Beaumont, Texas, where her family stayed temporarily after being forced out of their New Orleans home after Hurricane Katrina.

"They used to call us refugees and tell us we don't want you here, and I didn't like how that felt," Laricia said. "I don't want any sixth-graders to feel that way. I want to tell them, 'Don't let anyone bring you down.' "

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