Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

PEYTON, Colo. – Hundreds of sixth grade students filed into Falcon Middle School for their first time Aug. 3, many showing signs of curiosity, some uneasiness, others withdrawn.

But when they entered the gymnasium and discovered dozens of eighth grade students applauding their first day of school, wearing black T-shirts with “Where Everybody Belongs” printed in bright green and yellow words, nearly everyone smiled.

The eighth graders were selected to ensure the transitioning students feel comfortable throughout their first middle school experience. The school was set to receive 326 former elementary school students Aug. 3, according to Falcon School District 49 enrollment numbers.

Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

“I was scared when I first came here,” said eighth grader Jasmin Young, who’s participating as a leader in Falcon Middle School’s tenth year using the “Where Everybody Belongs” orientation and transition program. “We’re welcoming them and making them feel like they’re at home.”

Young, 13, is one of approximately 60 eighth grade students co-mentoring a group of 10-15 sixth graders throughout their 2012-2013 school year. WEB leaders are selected for their enthusiasm, dependability and mentoring traits, said Brian Smith, Falcon Middle School principal.

“The WEB leaders, they are kids who I, as a principal, can count on,” said Smith, after greeting a group. “They see those sixth graders who’re confused, and then jump in, as a leader.”

Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

“They’re so dedicated and excited about it,” said Smith, while explaining how the program encourages leadership development. “For a lot of them, it allows them to take leadership skills they already have and run with it.”

Lindsey Gustafson, eighth grade reading teacher, and Toni Murphy, seventh grade math teacher, coordinate WEB at Falcon Middle School. They’ve attended training from The Boomerang Project, an organization that provides the framework for the school transition program.

The Boomerang Project creates positive, caring cultures in more than 750 middle schools and more than 1,500 high schools, while building up leaders and re-enforcing anti-bullying environments, according to its official website, http://www.boomerangproject.com.

Falcon Middle School first implemented the program during its 2002-2003 school year.

“The idea is to get them to feel confident in the school, feel safe,” said Gustafson, while rushing between comical activities that animated the crowded bleachers of students.

“If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be?” said Murphy, after relocating the students into more than 20 groups on the gymnasium floor. Each huddle of sixth graders responded to several personal interest topics, guided by their two assigned WEB leaders.

“I wanted to help these kids be more themselves – to be open, to not be afraid to be themselves,” said Young, who’s teamed up with eighth grader Michael Finley, 13, in WEB Group 9.

“A lot of these kids in here were not talking to us when we first started,” said Young. “Now, all of a sudden, we’re communicating and getting to know each other.”

Each group of students followed their WEB leaders into a classroom for a couple of collaborative, icebreaker discussions and games. After that, the team toured their school together, meeting their teachers for science, math, reading, writing and social studies.

Young pointed to offices for security personnel, nurses, counselors and the principal. Finley explained where they’d get a locker, eat lunch and maybe enjoy music or technology classes, or shoot hoops on the outdoor basketball court.

Young and Finley finished the day’s activities by explaining successful middle school strategies. Sixth grader A’Lexus Ball, 11, wrote on her worksheet: “don’t tell anyone your locker combination,” “don’t be tardy” and “work hard in class.”

Beyond the initial four-hour orientation day, WEB leaders are required to provide academic and social follow-up meetings during the school year. They’re encouraged to initiate individual interactions, as well as refer students to counselors when necessary.

The program continues to improve at Falcon Middle School, as students strive to make a bigger difference, said Smith. He says WEB leaders must continue to contribute with varying interests and backgrounds, along with a demonstrated capacity to overcome adversity.

Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

Colorado School Starts Tenth Year of ‘Where Everybody Belongs’

“You want students who represent different groups,” said Smith. As a science teacher at Falcon High School, he implemented the high school transition program for freshmen, called Link Crew.

“You tend to have a couple of those kids who may have been in trouble before,” said Smith. “As a WEB or Link Crew leader, it’s a way for them to realize, ‘OK, I’ve got this responsibility now, I got to step up. … I made that mistake and here’s how I learned from it.’

“There are so many students who like to get involved, but they don’t get elected for student council, or they don’t get on the National Junior Honor Society, for whatever reason. But they still want to lead in their school and make a difference.

“WEB and Link Crew are opportunities for them to do that,” he said.

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