Two teenage boys joking around before class starts—no big deal, right? Scenes like this play out every day at high schools across the country. But this one is part of a carefully orchestrated project to help students survive a make-or-break year in their lives: 9th grade.
The project uses 11th and 12th graders as its secret weapons, training them to shepherd freshmen through their perilous first year of high school, and set them on a glide path to graduation.
It plays out so casually—in text messages, hugs, and high-fives—that, to the casual observer, it doesn’t look like anything planned or significant is going on.
Take this scene: The sun is just coming up over the quad at Summit High School, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles. Melvin Rivas, a senior, is hanging out with Terrace Manley, a freshman. The two students shoot the breeze about sports and homework between bites of applesauce and cinnamon rolls.
These laid-back breakfasts have become a daily ritual for the two boys. They’ve produced a steady accumulation of hang time that offers something powerful to Terrace: someone to turn to as he navigates his freshman year.
And they give Melvin, a soft-spoken guy with an easy smile, a stealthy way to check on how Terrace is doing, offer him tutoring when classes get tough, or encourage him to get involved in school by joining a sports team. During the day, Melvin drops Terrace occasional text messages, too.
“It’s really good to have Melvin around to, like, help me with academic stuff,” Terrace said. “And we talk about fun stuff, too.”
These interactions are part of a well-thought-out system that’s designed to save 9th graders from wandering down the roads that can undermine their success, from failing courses to falling in with the wrong crowd.
The freshman year is a well-known stumbling point for high school students. Moving into a new setting, with more responsibility and less supervision, they can become unsure of themselves, isolated, and afraid to seek help. More than older high school students, freshmen risk having to repeat a grade because they failed too many classes and lack the credits to move ahead.
That’s why a good system to monitor and support freshmen is critically important, said Elaine Allensworth, the director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has studied the way the freshman year can set a negative pattern for the rest of high school.
“That first year is especially powerful, because it’s the time students are developing their mindsets about whether they belong and can succeed,” Allensworth said.
“It’s a time when important patterns are set for how you do school. The key thing is establishing good relationships early on. Then if someone starts to slip, you can use those relationships to say, ‘Hey, do you need help?’ ”
Peer relationships are particularly important in adolescence, as young people start tuning out adults’ input and paying more heed to what their friends say. Summit High School, which serves a diverse mix of students in this middle-class town, aimed to capitalize on those dynamics when it chose the Link Crew program five years ago to combat a high freshman course-failure rate. Between 2014-15 and 2015-16 alone, there was a 35 percent drop in the number of courses freshmen failed. The graduation rate has inched up. And fewer students are in remedial courses and summer school now, freeing up money to support a summer “bridge” program for rising freshmen, said Assistant Principal Greg Lopez.
Operating in 5,000 schools nationwide, Link Crew provides a detailed training curriculum that each school can customize to prepare 11th and 12th graders to look after its freshmen.
“What we’ve always known is that education is fundamentally about relationships,” said Micah Jacobson, a co-founder of the Boomerang Project, a nonprofit that designed Link Crew. “Kids who aren’t connected do worse in every possible way. Adults in the system are overwhelmed. But kids can help kids.”
Unlike a typical freshman orientation, which lasts perhaps one day, with a pep rally and campus tour, Link Crew is designed to weave upperclassmen, teachers, and administrators into a yearlong web of support for 9th graders. Every one of Summit’s 600 freshmen has an upperclassman to lean on.
Pairs of 11th and 12th graders known as “link leaders” oversee groups of 12 freshmen for the whole school year. Here at Summit, the link leaders undergo a weeklong training that teaches them how to break the ice with the new freshmen, build closeness, and serve as academic and social supports.
The link leaders organize ice cream socials, scavenger hunts, and a lot of casual connections—a hug, a high-five in the hallway—to stay connected.
Each pair of leaders stays in close touch with their 12 freshmen, and connects them with whatever they need: tutoring, college planning, help getting involved in the school yearbook or tennis team. Even help meeting new friends.
Behind the scenes is a network of adults at the school who keep crucial information flowing to the 11th and 12th graders.
Teachers and counselors send bright blue-and-red slips of paper called “link alerts” when they notice a freshman is struggling with classes, or having trouble adjusting to school social life.
Those slips go to Summit’s Link Crew coordinator, teacher Jennifer Karpinski, who discreetly funnels the information to the right link leaders. The leaders combine those alerts with their own observations, keeping track of their freshmen on Excel spreadsheets. This one’s not doing so well in biology. That one reported trouble at home. This one didn’t show up for math tutoring as suggested.
On a recent afternoon, Melvin’s co-link leader, senior Kyla Mitchell, was in full monitoring mode. She walked to a 9th grade health class and pulled Jacqueline Mariscal out for a little break. As they walked across campus to the tutoring lounge, Kyla chatted up her freshman friend.
“So, how’s it going?” she asks. They laugh about a Spanish teacher they’ve both had, and then get around to the harder stuff: Jacqueline’s not doing so well in math. She’s sad about it, and she’s baffled. Math was easy in 8th grade, she told Kyla. “I just don’t know what happened,” she says.
By now, the two girls have reached the lounge. They sit down together at a desktop computer, and Kyla opens the school’s student portal, where students can check their grades, class assignments, and messages from teachers. “Do you know about this?” she asks Jacqueline. “How often do you use it? This is really important, so you don’t miss any assignments.”
This is a critical advising session; Kyla reminds Jacqueline that there are tutoring sessions offered three times a week. But it’s also a bonding session. In a soft voice, Jacqueline tells Kyla it’s been tough since she transferred recently to Summit. Kyla empathizes; she understands struggle. She had plenty of her own freshman year. They toss around ideas for school activities that might help Jacqueline feel more at home.
The two girls work out some options for tutoring, and as Kyla escorts her younger charge back to class, she reminds her that she can always text her link leader for help.
Jacqueline said she appreciates having an older student to lean on.
“I feel safe here,” she said. “The link leaders give you so much help.”
Link leaders aren’t chosen for the program because they’re academic or social superstars, although some of them are.
“The most important thing we look for is kids who can show kindness,” Karpinski says. “We need kids who represent the full range of diversity we have here, so students can relate to them. We need the good students, sure, but we also need the quiet kids, the kids just learning English, the kids who have overcome a lot.”
Jacobson, of the Boomerang Project, says this was a key revelation in developing the program. Its leaders first sought out the classic straight-A, student council-president type. But it quickly became apparent that freshmen didn’t see themselves in those kids, he said.
“We’d watch kids get disconnected almost immediately,” Jacobson said. “Freshmen would say, he’s not like me, why should I listen to him?”
‘On a Tightrope’
At Summit, it’s not hard to find link leaders who know firsthand what freshman year trouble feels like. On 9th grade orientation day, in late July, a week before school began, Melvin and Kyla shared their stories with their 12 freshmen. Sitting on the floor, cross-legged, in a circle, the stories tumbled out: Loneliness. Bad grades. Bad choices. Getting bullied. All in the past. And they’re now on solid footing, telling the tales.
Freshman Amanda Habhab was in that circle. It meant a lot to her to hear those stories. When her grades started teetering this year, and she was worried, she thought about Melvin and Kyla.
“It helped me not to give up, because if they did it, it’s possible for me, too,” she said.
Melvin credits his link leader, Patrick Huynh, with helping him survive freshman year. As a shy 9th grader aching to fit in, he was hanging out with a bad crowd, and his grades were falling fast. As a special education student, he sometimes struggles with academics.
Patrick introduced Melvin to other kids—kids who didn’t cut class—and talked him into joining the tennis team. He was always checking in to see how classes were going, and arranging tutoring—or tutoring Melvin himself—through rough stretches.
Melvin didn’t want to tell his parents about his difficulties in school; he wanted to seem grown-up enough to handle things on his own. In Patrick, he found the perfect guide and support.
“He was a teenager like me,” Melvin said. “He understood.”
Little by little, Melvin found his place at Summit. Now he’s aiming for college, maybe by way of military service, and then a career in television or film production.
“I was on a tightrope, and I could have fallen either way,” recalled Melvin. “I owe Patrick a lot. Now I want to do that for someone else.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Peers Help 9th Graders Survive Critical Year