Incoming freshmen at Flathead High School will start the year knowing at least one student who has been in their shoes before.
More than 100 students will be paired up with freshmen as part of a new peer mentoring program for the 2018-19 school year.
The upperclassmen took time out from summer vacation to train with Sarah Aea and Courtney Tensley of Ignite Nation, a Washington-based business that helps schools empower their “biggest untapped resource” — students — in improving school culture.
On Wednesday, the mentors-in-training were participating in activities and learning lessons to break the ice with freshmen. During the year, mentors will meet with freshmen once a month for 30 minutes to focus on different topics such as time management, coping skills, relationships and academics.
“It covers social skills, academic growth, a lot of our lessons cater towards creating a goal their freshmen year that’s maintainable,” Aea said.
The monthly lessons are meant to serve as a springboard. Mentors are asked to regularly check in with mentees to see how they are progressing during the school year. Tensley said mentors are encouraged to make the program their own and connect with the freshmen outside of school.
“They’ll make study groups, take them for coffee, take them to games — just really build that relationship with their mentees,” Tensley said, noting that “they’re not going to build a very strong relationship if they see them once a month and that’s it.”
Why start a peer mentor program now?
“I think so that every student at our school feels noticed and valued,” said Flathead counselor Lisa Sears.
Funding was also available to get the training through a Montana Support, Outreach and Access for the Resiliency of Students (SOARS) grant, according to Flathead Principal Michele Paine.
Some of the students have been trained as “executive mentors,” and will oversee the mentors who will be paired with around five freshmen. Four school staff, who have also gone through the training with students, will serve as program advisers.
Student mentors were nominated by school staff to participate in the training, and then had to complete applications. When nominating students, staff looked for students from diverse backgrounds, Sears said.
“It was really important to staff to think about, if you went to our lunchroom and you looked at all of the different groups, we wanted to have a student representative from all groups,” she said.
Senior Mikayla Shinn and junior Shelby Olsen are training to become mentors. Both describe freshmen year as a period of adjustment.
“I was home schooled my entire life,” Shinn said, explaining how she had to adapt to the structure of public school. “I didn’t know how to manage my time or organize my homework — I would have liked some advice on that.”
Olsen also had to adjust to a new peer group. “I came from Columbia Falls, so I didn’t know anybody.”
Age plays an important role in the program.
“It’s easier for them to build trust with someone closer to their age — with similar interests, most of the time — than it is for them to build a relationship with adults,” Tensley said.
While many of the mentors and freshmen will be meeting for the first time, they have common ground in the shared experience of being teenagers in high school right now, and the advice will thus be different than turning to an adult. The peer mentoring program adds a more relatable layer to the support systems available to students.
“I guess if it was an adult, they’d feel like, oh, it’s another parent, someone telling me what do at school,” Shinn said. “Where if it’s someone your own age, maybe they’d be willing to listen to advice — maybe it’d feel more relatable.”
Junior John Shelton, who is also training to become a mentor, said he thought taking an active interest in his peers’ attendance and academic progress will take getting used to and may feel awkward at first. But while he isn’t certain what impact the program will have, he hopes to continue participating if it’s successful.
Sears said she has seen leadership potential in the students throughout the training, such as “their level of commitment, their dedication to looking outside of themselves and helping others, their willingness to be uncomfortable to make a difference in speaking publicly, doing activities, getting personal with people at this school that maybe they aren’t friends with or don’t know.”
Shinn summed up the peer mentor as “someone who actually cares if they’re showing up to school and if they’re passing. That’s what we’re really here for. To encourage them, and help them along.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.