As many of us remember all too well, the transition from elementary school to high school can be one of the most difficult changes we experience during our formative years. Both socially and academically, incoming freshmen face new problems and increased pressure. But despite the inevitable stresses of this near-universal life event, very few strategies to support young students have been adopted widely. At Cardinal O’Hara High School, administrators are looking to buck that trend, utilizing a comprehensive initiative called Link Crew to help make that transition easier for incoming students.
Link Crew is a nationally renowned high school transition program that connects incoming students with juniors and seniors who help mentor and guide them throughout their first year. In 2015, Cardinal O’Hara joined more than 3,500 schools from around the world in implementing the all-inclusive course. It works by dividing the freshman class into groups of 8-10 students and then pairing those groups with two upperclassmen mentors – one junior and one senior. These two students, called Link Leaders, provide guidance and companionship to young students at a time when they need that support most.
“This is a program that the students can really feel like they own,” said Kelly Lanza, the Assistant Principal for Academic Affairs at Cardinal O’Hara. “Of course, we train our upperclassmen regarding how to implement the program and guide them through navigating problems. But we also give them a lot of autonomy. They remember all too well how hard it was to be freshmen, so I rely on them to help new students feel like part of our school – regardless of their interests, athletic ability, or group of friends. And the best part of the program is that it’s cyclical – once those freshmen become upperclassmen, they can apply to be Link Leaders and give back to a new group of new students.”
Before the school year begins, Link Leaders attend a two-day seminar that imparts upon them the leadership skills and knowledge they’ll need to successfully implement the program. Leading those training sessions is Diane Casey, an educator for the better part of the last three decades and Cardinal O’Hara’s Link Crew Coordinator. Throughout the year, she oversees the initiative, providing guidance to freshmen and upperclassmen alike. This is Casey’s first year being involved with the program, and she has already seen positive outcomes begin to take shape.
“These are real, student-to-student connections, and it’s all about inclusion – making our new students feel welcome,” she said. “It’s a bit like a Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and I think there are benefits for both the incoming freshmen, who receive great guidance and support, and the upperclassmen, who learn to become better leaders and communicators.”
All of the Link Leaders at Cardinal O’Hara were either recruited by teachers and administrators at the school or self-nominated to serve as mentors. Many of them remember how hard it was to transition from eighth grade to ninth – both academically and socially – and find it gratifying to help a new class of incoming students feel more immediately at home at the school.
“Any way that I can help these new students I want to, because I know it makes such a huge difference,” said senior Frances Schueren, a second-year Link Leader. “I really wish that I had something like this when I was a freshman, because this is such a great way to quickly make friends coming into freshman year. I remember my first day of high school, coming into homeroom and not knowing anyone. Link Crew really helps ease freshmen into their first few days of high school.”
But the program doesn’t end with the freshman orientation the school puts on the eve of the first day of classes. Throughout the course of the year, the volunteer Link Leaders make efforts to reach out to their freshman mentees both in and out of the classroom. Some of the help the Link Leaders provide is structured – planned trips to classrooms, invitations to afterschool events, group hangouts in the lunchroom, and the like. But one of the more powerful aspects of the program is the organic bond it creates between students, many of whom otherwise perhaps would not have much reason to interact with one another.
“When I found out about this program, I was really excited. It’s been great, and I’ve been able to make a few really special connections as a part of it,” said Elizabeth Tosto, a second-year Link Leader and senior at Cardinal O’Hara. “Last year, one of the freshmen I was mentoring happened to be in my Spanish class, so I was able to sit next to her at the beginning of the year and ask the teacher if we could be partners on some of the group projects. We became good friends through that, and I’m really excited to sit next to her in Spanish class again this year.”