Summer Training Days for Link Crew Leaders

Sameera Garimella well remembers her first day of school as a freshman at San Marino High School.
“I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t know how the high school was organized,” she said. “Middle school was a much smaller environment. Seeing everyone, seeing the older kids, I was very intimidated.”
The school had provided a freshman orientation program, but Garimella said it had felt “cluttered,” adding, “There were students who wanted to go home, who said, ‘Oh, let’s just ditch.’”
A more comprehensive program of freshmen orientation was put in place at SHMS last year. Called Link Crew, it introduced the new students to leaders from the upper classes, who broke the freshmen into small groups, got to know them, provided guidance and friendship, and, perhaps most important of all, pledged that they would be looking out for them throughout the entire school year.
It was a resounding success, according to staff members and students, so groundwork is already being laid for a new round of it next school year.
To that end, 70-plus upperclassmen specially chosen as Link Crew leaders have been gathering in the high school’s small gym this summer for extensive training sessions, in order to prepare them for this important duty come the start of the new school year in mid-August.
“Talk about yourself, your interests,” Courtney Rushing, an SMHS teacher and Link Crew trainer, said in preparing the students for their small-group encounters with the freshmen. “Talk about the challenges you faced when you came here. Do not talk about your 4-point-whatever [grade-point-average] or your number of AP classes. What do you do at school? Sports? Activities? We want you to talk about the things you do for fun.”
Before even getting to that time of discussion, however, a whole lot of ice will have to be broken, and the students were learning about that, too. That’s where the fun came in.
They played a game described as human rock-paper-scissors. Two opposing groups would huddle and devise their plan in whispers. In this round, did they want to be the tiger, the tiger trap or the human? (The trap foils the tiger, the human controls the trap and the tiger … well, the human loses that matchup.) SMHS Activities Director Jose Caire would count down from three and each group would burst into its chosen form, resulting in great peals of laughter. It was fun for the students when it was four vs. four. It amped up when the teams were of eight, then 16. And by the time it was 32 against 32, they were positively squealing.
Counselor Laura Ives looked on with bemusement. “You’d think, as teenagers, they would be too cool for games,” she said, “but they really have fun.”
After the freshmen shed any inhibitions through such group hilarity, they’ll be formed into the groups of eight, each led by two Link Crew leaders. The leaders will start getting acquainted with them, and answer questions — a list, “what every freshman should know,” has already been compiled through collaboration in the training sessions.
Once the entire group reassembles, a tour of the school will be conducted.
“I think it just alleviates a lot of anxiety for our incoming freshmen,” Rushing said. “We’re such a high-performing school, not just academics, but athletics, theater, band, orchestra. And our little guys come in: ‘How am I going to compete?’ Once they realize these are real kids just like them, they feel more a part of things.”
The Link Crew leaders are giving up a portion of their summer to participate in this. There is no class credit, and certainly no pay. It doesn’t even qualify as community service. And yet 175 kids applied, according to Ives.
Link Crew was established by the Santa Cruz-based Boomerang Project in 1992, and is now employed in 4,500 schools nationwide. It is intended to “put in place a structure where freshmen get the necessary support to successfully navigate this significant transition and start their high school experience on a positive note,” according to the organization’s web site.
A key component of the program is that this is not limited to a single day or a few hours of freshman orientation. Once school begins, related activities are held monthly, and the upperclass leaders check in with their charges regularly.
Justin Chang, who served as a Link Crew leader during his junior year and is back to do so again, said, “We had really good turnout for the events throughout the year. Kids got more acclimated. If they were struggling, we always reached out to try to help them — find friend groups, invite them to lunch one day and sit with them. If they needed help studying, we did that. We just tried to make it easier on them.”
Garimella, who also served as a leader last year, added, “There was one girl who was having trouble with her classes and some family troubles. It was nice that she felt a personal connection. Because we were in such a small group throughout orientation, she didn’t mind talking to me, expressing her feelings.”
Ives is passionate about that concept of connection. She wants to see those links established throughout the student body, so no one feels that a difficulty has to be faced alone. “If they are feeling overwhelmed by school, they have an upperclassman to go to,” she said.
As the Christmas holiday approached last year, the freshmen were surveyed about their experience with Link Crew, and the program’s advisers were encouraged by the results.
“Kids said, ‘I felt like I fit in,’” Rushing said. “‘I felt I knew who to go to if I had a question.’ ‘I knew where everything was.’ ‘I wasn’t terrified.’
“We saw a great number of kids who just felt comfortable. And that’s what we all want from high school.”

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