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'Everybody belongs'

It could have been a rough start for incoming sixth-grade students coming from elementary school to Cottage Grove Middle School.

But it wasn't as scary as they thought it would be said a group of sixth-graders, because they got help and reassurance from eighth-grade mentors in the "Where Everybody Belongs" program the school put into action last August.

Through the program, a group of eighth-graders recommended by teachers took part in leadership training that matched them up with incoming sixth-graders.

It was more than a one-time shot to give new students a tour of the school. It matched the kids up so sixth-graders could share and learn from their mentors all through the year. It also developed leadership skills in the older students.

Research shows that students who have positive middle school experiences are more likely to be successful in high school, according to developers of the national program.

As with other relationships, some succeeded more than others, but overall, sixth-graders said it helped and many said they look forward to becoming mentors when they become eighth-graders.

Throughout the year, sixth-graders, who have early lunch at 10:10 a.m., sit at tables in the main hallway, away from the boisterous lunchroom. There, they meet with the mentors to talk about their concerns.

Participating has also been a good experience for the eighth-graders.

Molly Sicard's job included telling sixth-graders what to expect on the first day of school.

Nate Grosse said a tour was included, as well as demonstrations on how to open lockers.

"We relate to them now and they're not just annoying little kids down the hall," Grosse said. "Sixth-graders needed to get rid of the stereotype that eighth-graders were going to boss them."

Mariah Schumacher said the program should have included seventh-graders who were also new to the school.

Colin Haider said there was a trust issue when they first met the sixth-graders they were assigned to. The new students were reluctant to talk. Having lunch together helped bridge the gap, he said.

"They complain, too," said Haider, "about how much homework they have."

Sixth-graders meet with their mentors about once a month. Those eating lunch last Tuesday said the eighth-graders helped them adjust to their new surroundings.

"They helped us stay organized and told us what to expect," said Alexis Violette.

Kaitlin Bellow said she made a lot of new eighth-grade friends.

"I had no idea where I was going," said Maddyson Jeske, adding that the older kids helped her get oriented.

Sarah Glasow worried about being late when she was told there're only four minutes between classes, but was reassured by her mentors that there would be enough time.

Making new friends who came from other schools was a high point for Spencer Malone. Sixth grade is more complicated, he said but not hard.

He also has some advice for sixth-graders coming to school next fall. "Being a nerd," he said, "I'd tell them to get their homework done before doing other things."

Noah Wondimu said having an eighth-grader mentor made school easier.

"It's not different than elementary school," Glasow said. "There's just more teachers."

Most of the sixth-graders said they are looking forward to being mentors when they are eighth-graders.

"I know what kids are worried about," Glasow said.

Principal Elise Block said the program has been successful and Where Everybody Belongs leaders have become leaders in other school activities and are great role models.

"As a first-year program, our student WEB leaders did an outstanding job of presenting the different faces of WEB to our students, staff and community," Block said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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