by NATHANIEL NELSON
For incoming freshman, high school can be a daunting experience. An awkward class schedule, heavy workloads, finals, testing and a whole new school environment can create some worry and panic. To help with this, Winona Senior High School (WSHS) has expanded its Link Crew program to a year-long process, giving new students a place to talk with upperclassmen and get advice when they need it.
Link Crew is a nationwide high school transition program that pairs incoming freshman with juniors and seniors to help them feel more comfortable and welcome in the first year of high school. WSHS has 28 crews, with two or three upperclassmen leading each one, and the groups meet every month or so to check in and see how high school is going.
WSHS is a large school, so many students can feel overwhelmed and unsure where to turn to –– Link Crew was formed to help out with that.
“It’s a way to make big schools feel small,” said Dwayne Voegeli, social studies teacher at WSHS and Link Crew advisor. “It’s hard to belong to a group of 1,000, but much easier to belong to a group of 20.”
Seniors Maggie Donahue and Jasmine Albrecht, along with junior Ryan Meyer, lead one of the link crews. On December 6, the crews met in anticipation for the upcoming holiday season –– and finals. Students talked about their holiday plans, worries and issues in class, and asked about how finals work in a high school setting.
“We’ve been in their position, and to know that someone shares that experience with you is helpful,” Donahue explained.
As freshman, all three had been on the receiving side of the program and remembered how having a link leader helped aid the transition to their final years before the real world.
“We can reassure them that high school will be OK, and that there are people you can come to,” Meyer added.
Donahue explained that she joined the Link Crew to help other students coming in, both for them and her own practice.
“I just got involved with it for the experience. I’m hoping to go into elementary education, and I though working with students would help me connect with that,” she said. “It’s nice to have that checkup, just to reassure everyone that if they need help, they can come to us.”
Albrecht is in her second year as a link leader, having started in the program in her junior year. She joined the program to help students become more comfortable in their first year, and that said being in Link Crew helped her be involved in her school.
“It’s good to get involved in the school, even outside of sports,” she said, adding that she would recommend other students to be leaders when they become upperclassmen.
Voegeli works with fellow teachers Adam Matson, Jon Feldhake, Brittany Moncrief, and school counselor Karen Whitney-Thrune on managing the program. Each school year, teachers nominate students for the role of link leader, and from there students can apply to be involved in the program. Whitney-Thrune said they try to have the leaders be as “eclectic as they can be” so incoming freshman have a good variety of people with whom they can talk.
The chosen leaders meet a few weeks before school starts to go over the program and how everything works. For the past nine years, the Link Crew program was more of an orientation program than a mentoring program –– the groups would meet on the first day and that would be it. This year, Voegeli explained, the program has expanded to last the whole year, with meetings spaced out through the four quarters during guided study halls.
“It’s to show students that we don’t just care about you this first day, but we care about you all year long,” he said.
Feldhake added that the teachers’ roles in the program are minimal. They meet with the link leaders a few weeks before any full group meetings, but when it comes time to break into the smaller crews, they take their hands off and let the students do their work.
“The teacher role is designed to be an overseer role, so we don’t want the teacher there when the crews meet,” he said.
Voegeli explained that freshman are some of the most vulnerable and important students at the high school. By giving them peers to talk and come to with issues and problems, the Link Crew helps them learn their place in the school and feel more at home.
“Freshman have a higher rate of failure than any other grade. This program is specifically designed to be there for their first six weeks, whether they’re stressed, confused or overwhelmed,” he said. “It gives them a friend, and someone to talk to.”