ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

School Transition Program Fosters a Spirit of Service, Friendship, and Community

Post written by Jillian J. Toews, a guidance counselor at Hesston Middle School in Hesston, Kans., and was featured in the April 2010 issue of ASCD Express.

Making the move from one school to the next often evokes unavoidable emotions in students, ranging from excitement to angst. But Hesston Unified School District 460 in Kansas has found a way to help allay the anxieties over such transitions while building a spirit of caring and generosity among its students. For four years, the district's Transition Buddy Program has used the inevitable move to a new school to help shape Hesston students into thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic citizens.

Prior to entering the middle school, students are assigned a buddy who will take care of them not only in the last year of elementary school but also during the entire first year after they enter Hesston Middle School. In January, 4th grade students are paired with 7th grade students to begin a rapport-building relationship. Every two weeks, students write pen pal notes to each other in an effort to become acquainted and appease any anxieties of the future middle schoolers. The messages are sent through interoffice mail, and school counselors distribute them to the older students during lessons on leadership traits and skills. The older students may challenge themselves to creatively engage their younger charges by sending bookmarks with study tips or hiding advice in puzzles, for example.

The 4th graders come to the middle school to meet with their buddies, have lunch, get a tour, and meet their future teachers. The older buddies also have a parent night to meet and introduce themselves to the parents of incoming 5th graders to explain how they will be taking care of their students for the coming school year. This offers the older students an opportunity to practice the leadership skills they've been acquiring throughout the year.

Creating a Culture of Caring

The series of activities in the Transition Buddy Program "solidifies a strong sense of belonging," says Hesston Schools superintendent Darrel Kellerman, that "ultimately meets their social, emotional, and intellectual needs for success."

Eighth grade students take care of their 5th grade buddies on many levels, offering a chance for students to engage in positive team- and morale-building activities. Many times the older buddies take their role to the next level by checking on their little buddy when he or she is sick, writing positive notes to put in lockers during state assessments, or reiterating conflict resolution steps. They've even been known to wait outside for their younger buddies to walk them into the school, offering them a smile and a high-five to start the day.

The 5th and 8th grade buddy pairs are also assigned to the same Reach for Success Advisory group. Advisory groups are composed of about 12 students from 5th through 8th grade. The 5th grade students and the 8th grade students remain paired to continue the buddy relationship throughout the school year. And 6th and 7th grade students get a glimpse of what they'll need to do as 8th grade buddies.

In addition to offering helpful advice for doing well academically, 8th grade buddies are responsible for reinforcing the social skills taught during the advisory time. Each day, students engage in team-building activities during advisory time that allow them to delve into meaningful issues relating to school atmosphere, such as bullying, healthy friendships, community service, teamwork, and citizenship.

Many of these activities grew out of student surveys that helped pinpoint their fears and anxieties. For example, typical fears for incoming 5th graders ranged from nervousness about finding their locker to questions about the lunch process. So Hesston's 8th grade buddies walk the younger buddies through these processes—finding their assigned lockers, eating lunch with them for the first day—in an effort to comfort the 5th graders and answer their questions. Succeeding in fun games, such as Helium Hula Hoop (in which a group of students team up to lower a hula hoop to the ground), prepares students to work together on more serious issues, such as drug prevention and bullying.

Teachers from both the elementary and middle school buildings, which are just blocks apart, are available to answer questions, soothe apprehensions, and aid in the transition process. "Transitioning students and making them comfortable is the responsibility of everyone. Every staff member, having had the opportunity to be a character leader for students, is involved in fostering an environment that is caring and comfortable," says Hesston Middle School principal Randy Linton.

The benefits of the transition program are visible to all. "Simply choosing to focus on this one area—transitioning kids to the middle school—has impacted our school in unimaginably positive ways," says Hesston Middle School teacher Alisa Krehbiel. "Students are learning about leadership and empathy firsthand by taking care of each other. Instead of being intimidated by older students, 5th graders can be seen high-fiving and hugging their 8th grade buddies—even sitting with them at games or school events. The Transition Buddy Program has fostered a true family-like setting where kids take care of each other."

A Family-Like Atmosphere

Since we implemented the Transition Buddy Program, office referrals and suspensions have been nearly nonexistent. On any given day, a visitor will see students smiling and laughing with one another and staff, as well. Students easily converse with teachers, cooks, and janitors as they make their way through the hallways. And a sense of caring and compassion resonates throughout the building.

Because students care for one another, they also have a propensity for doing what's good and right and will quickly turn in lost or dropped cell phones, wallets, or jewelry. School lockers remain without locks, and bicycles lean easily on their racks with no security—certainly some indication of an atmosphere built on trust and respect for all.

Making a concerted effort to improve students' transition experience has helped infuse character education throughout our schools. The staff understands the importance of modeling core ethical values. For example, teachers began helping the janitors clean tables after lunch and the cooks wash trays, and students have followed their lead. The staff is a visible, consistent presence in the building, offering familiar smiles, using nicknames, and being playful with students.

According to Linton, the staff's consistent modeling of positive character allows students to assist in maintaining the supportive atmosphere that has "simply become standard in our district."

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