When Alanna Henderson enrolled as a sixth grader at Sylvania's McCord Junior High School two years ago, the student-mentoring group she joined helped her find her way around the unfamiliar building and introduced her to classmates from other district elementary schools in a small-group setting.
"I met new people who were in my classes. It gave me people to talk to," said Alanna, noting that she has even stayed friends with a student from that group who has since moved into the Washington Local district.
Now she's returning the favor to the next incoming class at McCord by serving as one of about 50 eighth-grade mentors in the Where Everyone Belongs, or WEB, program, which district officials plan to introduce at Sylvania's two other junior highs next year after a successful six-year run at McCord.
"We played games and got to know each other. The eighth-graders led the games," Carson Montz, one of the sixth-graders in Alanna's group, said.
"It was good to know other kids" on the first day of school, agreed Jacqueline Wilkinson, another group member.
Carson was particularly enthusiastic about the guidance he got from Berry Grant, who was teamed with Alanna to lead their group.
"He helped me find my classes when I was kind of lost," the younger boy said. As classes have gotten under way, he added, Berry has inquired several times about how things are going.
"If you're not having the best day, you can go and talk to your WEB leaders," Carson said.
The continuing nature of the WEB program distinguishes it from more basic orientation sessions confined to the start of new school years, principal Jeff Robbins said.
"Throughout the year, there are scheduled events," the principal said. The school also provides the mentor students with birthdays and other basic information about their charges so the older kids can send notes or birthday cards, or even decorate the sixth-graders' lockers for special occasions, he said.
But the most dramatic results clearly are visible on opening day, with most of the incoming class having participated in the half-day introductory program two days prior.
"I see less anxiety of the kids coming into school - more confidence and comfort walking into the building on opening day," Mr. Robbins said.
Berry didn't participate in the program as a sixth-grader because at the time he didn't live in Sylvania. But he moved into the district in March of that school year, and said he was helped by two "building buddies" assigned to him then as a new move-in.
"I know what it's like not knowing anybody," he said.
For the sixth-graders, the program is voluntary, but more than 90 percent participated this year, which Mr. Robbins said shows strong parental support.
The introductory program starts with a large-group session, after which the students divide into their mentoring groups for team-building activities, said Dawn Gears, one of McCord's two guidance counselors.
Not only does the program help the sixth graders make the transition into a new school, she said, the student mentors develop leadership skills and "it boosts their confidence to know we believe in them."
It also erodes some of the caste-like rivalry that otherwise tends to develop between the grade levels, Mr. Robbins said.
"We have more connection across the grades," he said. "With the established students there is less harassment or intimidation of the younger kids. I think our school climate is better."
Candidates to be student mentors are chosen the previous spring based on teacher recommendations and student applications. The 50 mentors account for a little less than one quarter of the entire class.
Valerie Long, McCord's other guidance counselor, said that while girls account for a majority of the mentor ranks, an increasing number of boys participate, which allows more boy-girl mentor teams to be created. And top grades are not a prerequisite.
"Not everyone's going to be an A or B student," she said. "People can be leaders in different ways."
To establish the program at the other junior highs, the Sylvania Community Action Team will provide grants to pay for training those schools' counselors to teach the student-mentor candidates. A $2,000 grant from that agency paid for that training at McCord when the program started there, Mr. Robbins said.
Young Grant, meanwhile, said he can see a future for himself in peer counseling or similar endeavors.
"I'll probably end up wanting to do more," Berry said. "I just like helping people."