Grade 8s get a warm welcome at Clayton Heights

We're trying to make high school a positive experience from day one

Senior Nathan Robins (in blue) connects with some new Grade 8s last week at Clayton Heights Secondary.

If things go according to plan, Clayton Heights Secondary’s newest crop of Grade 8s will always remember their first day of school.

But it won’t be because they got lost on their way to class – or because they couldn’t find a friendly face in the crowd, thanks to something called the Link Crew.

Clad in bright blue t-shirts and consisting of 50 friendly students from Grades 11 and 12, the Link Crew members are volunteers who have stepped forward to act as mentors and role models to the Class of 2017.

That first day of class in a big, new school is always a bit scary.

“They’re going from being at the top of the ladder in Grade 7 in a small school to being overwhelmed,” explained Clayton Heights teacher and Link Crew coordinator Sheri Montgomery.

Montgomery is one of a growing number of educators in Canada and the U.S. who have been trained under the Boomerang Project, which now reaches 1 million students a year. The Link Crew is Clayton Heights’ response to the problem of how best to ease the transition from elementary school to high school.

When the transition doesn’t go smoothly, it can impact a student’s entire high school career.

“We want to reshape the whole [school] culture to be more accepting,” said Montgomery, who explains the Link Crew is about striving to make all of the new students feel at home.

On Aug. 30, the Grade 8s were invited to an orientation session that began with a welcome assembly in the gym. With attractions like a town crier, VIP section, and “bleacher creatures” assigned to pump up the crowd, it wasn’t your average Grade 8 orientation, where students pay fees, get their locker combinations and maybe a quickie tour of the school.

The newbie Grade 8s were then split up into groups of 10 for breakout sessions with Link Crew student leaders.

“We’ve all been there. We’ve all been through Grade 8. We know the anxiety. We know the fear, and some of the baggage that we bring from elementary school,” said school music teacher Paulina Pekova, another Link Crew coordinator.

“We’re going to do a run-through of the time table and they’re going to be trying all their locker combinations,” Pekova said.

“It’s all these little tiny miniscule things that we take for granted but cause anxiety,” she said. “We’re trying to make it a positive experience from day one.”

Besides making the students feel comfortable and at ease in their new surroundings, the program aims to front-end load them with information, such as how to get good grades and what clubs and sports they can sign up for.

Relationship building and establishing connections with their peers and other students is another focus.

Future activities include organizing an official cheering group for the Surrey Marathon, a pumpkin carving contest, and a study skills session.

The aim is to put kids on a positive path right from day one, rather than wait for problems to arise; nobody shows up for their first day in high school planning to cut classes or create trouble, she said.

Link Team members, teachers and administrators will be wearing their blue t-shirts for the first couple of weeks of school, so help is highly visible and easy to find.

To Pekova, it says a lot about the commitment of everyone involved that in order to participate, the student mentors willingly gave up three days of school vacation last week; two for training days, plus the actual orientation.

But maybe it’s not so surprising – nearly every senior student consulted on the program said they wished there had been something like the Link Crew in place for their first day of high school.

“In 20 years, when they look back on their first day of high school, they’re not going to remember what we said today. They won’t even remember the things they did. But they’re going to remember how they felt,” Pekova beams. “We want them to feel like they’re part of our community, that they belong and that we care about them.”