The rockiness of school transitions can be severe.

A study published by the Institute of Education Sciences found transitions into middle schools and high schools cause a drop in academic achievement, and there’s a substantial drop in student test scores during the first year of middle school.

Other studies found more students fail ninth grade than any other grade, and most high school dropouts failed at least 25 percent of their ninth grade courses.

Two inclusive peer-mentoring programs are helping. Where Everybody Belongs or Link Crew — being introduced to students and parents at open houses and orientations this month — are spreading rapidly across the district.

The programs, products of California-based for-profit Boomerang Projects, have been introduced in 4,500 schools across America and Canada, including two Bend-La Pine high schools and several middle schools.

Each program — WEB in middle schools and Link Crew in high schools — pairs younger students and their older peers for activities. This gives the incoming students a better sense of belonging and a person to turn to for advice or direction.

These programs are considered critical because the toll on adolescents entering a new school is compounded by the fact they’re facing these changes for the first time, said Steve Tillery, director of clinical practice and licensure at Western Oregon University’s College of Education. They’ve been separated from a familiar group of friends, and they’re entering new, usually larger schools.

“All these things add up to why we want to put supports in place for these kids. Link Crew and WEB are excellent steps that let kids know, ‘Yes, you can do this, and we are going to help you do this,’” he said, adding that it’s important to “front-load” new students with support.

WEB and Link Crew program leaders plan activities, tutor younger students and otherwise serve as a sounding board for small and large concerns.

Cascade Middle School eighth-grader Maya Gardner sat at a roundtable with several fellow WEB leaders in the library on a recent afternoon. The 13-year-old said she came from an elementary school where there was a “big bullying problem,” and she used to have trouble talking to people.

“I thought I was the kind of person to be a follower and hang back and let someone take control, but (WEB showed me) I really like being a leader,” she said.

Students who go through these programs often want to pay it forward by the time they become juniors or seniors in their school. To become a WEB or Link Crew leader, students must have a B-average, write an essay about why they would be an ideal leader and include several teachers’ recommendations in their applications.

Cascade’s WEB leaders spoke with enthusiasm about how the program helped them as incoming sixth-graders. Their student leaders helped ease fears about blanking on a locker combination and made them feel welcome in a new school.

Flash forward a couple of years, and now-WEB leader Gardner said, “It’s fun to be a part of a group that is planning literally almost every event in school,” comparing WEB to student government.

While WEB and Link Crew are becoming more common, some schools use in-house programs to help with transitions. Every middle school and high school operates a freshman orientation and have instituted specific support tools, said Alandra Johnson, Bend-La Pine Schools’ communication specialist.

For example, La Pine Middle School operates Soar Up, which an official described as similar to WEB, and Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School has Crews, which includes a three-day trip that new students take with upperclassmen to solidify bonds before the school year begins.

What may dissuade other schools are Boomerang Project’s price tags. To become WEB or Link Crew coordinators, school administrators attend three-day seminars at resorts that cost more than $2,000. After that initial and one-time cost, schools pay, depending on their class size and the number of programs and activities they go in for, anywhere from $500-$2500 annually, said Mary Beth Campbell, Boomerang Project’s co-founder and CEO. Trademark infringement — in which administrators acquire a program manual and implement it without training — has been an issue, but Campbell said there have been no such instances in the Bend-La Pine district, where Summit High School was the first to adopt Link Crew in 1999.

A research project by Education Partners Inc. found the most successful transitions treat the move “as a process, not an event. These schools involve teachers, students and families in continuous planning to support students’ academic and social success in high school and beyond. Students that have a successful transition are more likely to achieve in the ninth grade, to attend regularly and to not drop out of school.”

For a new school like Pacific Crest, now in its first year, WEB is worth the expense. Administrators expect it to serve as a petri dish for fostering a positive, all-welcoming school culture, said Ashlee Davis, a counselor. Davis will attend a three-day training session in California this May so she and another coordinator can implement WEB by this fall.

Davis also can observe in other area schools how WEB and similar programs help students.

Mountain View High School junior Grant Miller became a Link Crew leader because he knows how disorienting a new school can be. When he transferred to a middle school in seventh grade, he slipped through WEB’s grasp. It’s geared toward sixth-graders.

When he entered Mountain View, however, he found a great connection with a Link Crew leader who helped him decide what electives to take during sophomore year and helped him with homework.

Now as a leader himself, Miller said he reciprocates by checking in on his proteges (“I don’t just care about whether they’re getting A’s and B’s — home life is important, too”), stands up for anyone being bullied and otherwise leading by example.

Gardner, one of the Cascade Middle School WEB leaders, feels strong and confident in her current school. But the move to ninth grade, she admits, is daunting.

She was relieved to learn about Link Crew operating in area high schools: “Oh, that’s sooo good because I’ve been afraid of becoming a freshman,” Gardner said, letting out a sigh of relief.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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