Waukegan High freshmen connect with mentors for orientation
By Dan Moran firstname.lastname@example.org August 19, 2013 7:58PM
Teamwork from her new classmates helps Arianna Gorgas pass through a web barrier during Monday's "Ignition" freshman-orientation program at Waukegan High School's Brookside Campus. | Dan Moran~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 21, 2013 6:11AM
Eva Nevarez doesn’t have stellar memories of her first day a Waukegan High School two years ago this month.
“I just got scared,” the incoming junior said. “I was late to all my classes, because there was no one there to help me.”
On Monday, Aug. 19, Nevarez was there to help this year’s freshmen through their orientation, serving as a mentor for students she described as “kind of scared and really shy” on the first day of their high school career.
School officials said that first experience is critical in connecting with the largest at-risk group in the student population — freshman at Waukegan High generate the highest rates when it comes to both dropouts and discipline referrals.
“Everything from detentions to suspensions, the majority of them were freshmen,” said Waukegan High principal Brian Riegler of the 2012-13 school year. “A lot of kids act out because of fear of the unknown, or if kids are failing a class, they don’t want to say anything, so they act out.”
But Riegler added that he told the Class of 2017 during a Monday-morning assembly that “you show me an involved student, I’ll show you a successful student. You’re going to be here four years, so have fun with it.”
With this as the primary focus, the school teamed for the first time with Milwaukee-based Focus Training, which develops academic transition and mentorship programs for high school students. Riegler said the organization’s “Ignition” orientation program was used with success while he was a principal at Crete-Monee High School.
“I started this in my last job at Crete-Monee, and I will say it was the single best thing I’ve ever done as a principal,” said Riegler, who is beginning his second year in Waukegan. “We had the same issues (with discipline referrals) at my last building, and we decreased it some 60 to 70 percent in the first year alone.”
Lori Massimo, interim director of the Brookside Campus, helped set up Waukegan’s version of the orientation and agreed with Riegler about the importance of connecting students with their surroundings.
“The whole reason for the program is to help them be successful,” she said. “This helps kids with their transition from eighth grade, hooking them up with an upperclassman who’s been through it before and can give them some guidance.”
Back in the spring, administrators and teachers selected 150 students to serve as mentors, and the candidates went through three different training sessions to prepare for orientation. On Monday, the upperclassmen arrived on campus at 6 a.m. for final prep work that included setting up a six-station confidence course on the Brookside Campus’ east side.
Each mentor guided teams of eight to 12 freshmen through stations that included a “lava walk,” in which participants build a path of wooden planks across an imaginary lava field and then lead blindfolded peers safely across. There was also a game of “trust falls,” with students falling backward and depending on their classmates to catch them.
“It’s all about team-building and trust and stepping outside of your comfort zone,” said Massimo, “and building relationships with people you’re going to spend the next year with.”
Monday’s program also included indoor assemblies, but the overall experience is designed to run year-round. Riegler said meetings between the freshmen and their mentors are part of the students’ weekly schedules, looking to decrease truancy, increase attendance and improve grades.
“They talk about everything from study skills to being involved to choosing a college, you name it — making sure they’re involved and making good choices,” Riegler said. “That individualized attention with their mentor on a regular basis really drives it home.
“A lot of the research shows that if you introduce them to a mentor and don’t do anything else, it almost hurts them more, because you leave them to their own devices,” he added. “But by having this constant contact with their mentors throughout the year, it’s been very successful. (The) first couple of years at my last school, it lived up to its expectations.”
Following Monday’s orientation, the entire Waukegan High School community — some 4,200 students in all — will be back in the classroom on Tuesday, Aug. 20. The freshman class alone numbers 1,120, and the school hopes to end the year by topping last spring’s all-time graduation roll of 1,003 students.