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‘Where Everybody Belongs’ makes significant impact in improving school culture, building community

  • Building Community
‘Where Everybody Belongs’ makes significant impact in improving school culture, building community

Not long after the start of each school year, the weather gets cooler, the leaves start to change and students settle into their routines. 

The things that once made many incoming sixth graders feel nervous – lockers, hallways, classes and the lunchroom – are easier to navigate.

Students are making friends. Relationships are developing and deepening. 

Thanks to the efforts of student leaders and staff, school culture and community is changing at the middle schools. 

Leaders of the Where Everybody Belongs (WEB) program – a student-led program where 8th-grade leaders help to welcome, orient and nurture incoming sixth-grade students – are putting into practice the skills they gained over the summer.

As part of their leadership training in August, WEB leaders learned team-building activities and group leadership skills so that they would be able to facilitate groups of students on the very first day of school and in advisory classes throughout the year. Only a few weeks into the school year, staff believes that the program is already having a big impact on school culture and community. Teachers comment on how the leaders are such great role models for the students. They can see how the leaders are not only supporting the transition to middle school but are creating a positive and safe environment for all students. 

“I am blown away by the WEB leaders this year,” said Eagle Ridge WEB advisor Molly Moran. 

"This is the first year that we have been able to go for it in person, but I can see a world of difference even comparing it to the last student leadership program before WEB. The beauty of the program is that the eighth graders control the school culture, and that trickles down to all of the grade levels."

Things are a little awkward on the first day of school

On the first day of school, a “welcome day” when only sixth graders and WEB leaders attend school in person, classes are led by WEB leaders. There’s a lot of nervous energy running through the building. After anxiously waiting for doors to open, sixth graders walk through a human tunnel of staff and leaders, who excitedly clap and cheer them on as they make their way through the crowd. It’s a little awkward, but students relax a bit as they make their way to their first class. 

Classes look a little different, though, on the first day. WEB leaders are the “teachers,” and they take students through a series of ice-breakers and activities to help students get to know each other and start making connections. 

“We did a straw challenge - which was almost like doing magic - and a beach-ball game,” said Eagle Ridge leader Jennifer Saidu, reflecting about leading her group on the first day. “Some students were nervous, but as we took our group through several activities and talked to them, they became more comfortable with us leaders and each other. Things got very competitive during the beach-ball game! By the end of the day, kids were more relaxed and joking around with each other.”

“The games build teamwork,” said Nicollet leader Bailey Fox. You have to work together to do most of the activities, so you have to communicate during the process. This helps the students get to know each other.” 

“I’m really shy, so talking in front of a group is hard for me,” said Justin Ramirez, a leader at Eagle Ridge. “But, being in front of a large group more and more has helped. I’ve gotten more confident and responsible, especially with being involved in more activities now. I know the younger kids look up to me, like my sixth-grade brother and his friends, so I try to be a good role model and make things fun for them.” 

At Nicollet, Leo David and Rachel Countryman noticed that the team-building activities, even though they were a little awkward at first, actually helped kids “come out of their shells” and interact with each other. 

“All the games help students make connections,” said Leo. “My goal is to help them be comfortable being themselves within the group. I just want to create a safe and fun space for others.” 

Rachel added, “The ability to lead a group and help students feel more comfortable is something that makes me feel really good.”

Leaders are learning about themselves, too

While the WEB program is focused on helping sixth graders transition to middle school and providing them with a sense of belonging to the community, there are many skills that WEB leaders gain from their experience. Like Justin, many felt that their public speaking skills have improved. The more that leaders have had to talk in front of the group, the easier it has become for them. They’ve become less nervous and more comfortable striking up a conversation. For some students, they feel that they’ve become more open-minded. 

Crimson Saek, one of the leaders at Nicollet, thinks it has helped students be more open. “I think because of WEB, I’m more willing to participate. I feel like my energy makes the sixth graders feel comfortable. We really try to help students who are resistant to sharing or participating in games to feel comfortable in the group and encourage them during the activities.”

A common thread as to why these students chose to be leaders is that they enjoy helping others and want students to have a positive experience at school. 

“One thing I tell the sixth graders is that you’re gonna go through ups and downs, especially with friends, and things might be challenging at times,” said Jennifer. “But, you will get through it. Keep an open mind and keep yourself open to other people.” 

“Not fitting in or just being uncomfortable with who they are is something I notice about some students,” said Bailey. “I try to connect with those students and just listen to them. By just listening to them and their feelings, I feel like I'm supporting them and showing that someone cares.”

Each student brings their own personality, qualities and experiences to WEB. The diversity in both the school and the leadership group gives students a sense of community and belonging. 

“The students that applied and were accepted as WEB leaders are very different from your typical student leadership organization,” said Moran, the Eagle Ridge WEB advisor. “We have students with individualized education plans or IEPs, students who speak multiple languages, students who have hard stuff happening at home and students who have never been labeled as a leader before.”

Justin, who is bilingual, has been able to help Spanish-speaking kids, and even their parents who don’t speak any English. He’s helped them find their classes and open lockers, and he and his friends have invited kids sitting by themselves at lunch to their table so they won’t feel alone.   

“It is amazing what happens when kids their age hear from adults: I trust you to take on this huge responsibility. I know you can make the sixth graders feel safe and welcome here,” said Moran. “They have taken that and run with it. It is the sweetest thing to watch.”

Making it easier to transition to middle school

 “The WEB program has been crucial in helping with the transition into middle school,” said Monique Funches, Nicollet WEB advisor. “Our sixth graders have loved the attention they get and appreciate all the help the eighth graders gave them on the first day of school and continue to give them as the school year has gone on.”

“My sixth-grade year was very stressful, so I wanted to be able to help support sixth graders with issues they might face,” said Rachel.

From struggles with opening lockers, managing a new schedule and homework load, and meeting new people, the sixth-grade experience can be difficult for some to navigate. 

“There are many things that sixth graders will struggle with,” said Bailey. “But, I want to be able to show them how to problem solve and give them the confidence to figure things out. 

“In my sixth-grade class right now, many students have told me that they love to pass their WEB leaders in the hallway,” said Moran. “Sixth graders don't feel like they have just two WEB leaders — they feel like they have a whole eighth-grade class protecting them and making sure things run smoothly. I really want to reiterate that none of this is possible without WEB leaders.”

“There’s a feeling of community here,” said Jennifer. “Through WEB, we’ve gotten closer to people. We know that we have each others’ backs.”

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