JANESVILLE

In the far right-hand corner of the Craig High School bleachers, a group of 14-year-old boys sat clumped together.

A clump is the protective formation adolescents make when threatened or anxious and pretending it’s no big deal.

That clump was one of many seen Tuesday as more than 750 freshmen braved their first day at Craig and Parker high schools.

It was a special day just for them, and it featured a big welcome, get-to-know-you exercises, school tours, scavenger hunts, slushie sampling and a final challenge.

It was even powerful enough to break apart stubborn clumps.

A big start

Imagine being welcomed to high school by a tunnel of cheering upperclassmen, with Calvin Harris’ and Rihanna’s “This is What You Came For” playing so loudly the bleachers vibrated.

That’s the way the Link Crew welcomes new classmates. The crew comprises trained juniors and seniors whose job it is to welcome and shepherd freshmen through their first year of high school.

At Craig, Link Crew members and teacher leaders wore shirts that read, “Believe there is good in the world,” with some of the letters highlighted to read, “Be the good in the world.”

At Parker, the shirts said, “Let’s teach ‘em to fly.”

Those two mottos sum up the goals—and the results—of the Link Crews’ work.

But let’s get back to that tunnel.

As a freshman, do you run the gantlet or try to sneak behind it?

You try to sneak, of course, but they won’t let you. So, feeling awkward and uncomfortable, you go through the “tunnel” and immediately head for the bleachers to find an anonymous clump.

You expect a dull speech about responsibility and tardy slips. Instead you get a teacher with multicolored hair saying things such as, “Everyone experiences high school differently” and “There is a spot for you here.”

Now she wants you to say funny things and make motions with your hands. You recognize this as an activity designed to make everybody feel at ease. You do not feel at ease.

Next, you’re out of the bleachers and in new configurations on the gym floor for other activities. Some of them are silent, and some of them are silly, such as telling someone what you did yesterday in 30 seconds or less.

Your clump has been broken up, and then is broken up again, and somehow you feel more at ease.

Finally, you’re in a small group with your Link Crew upperclassman, and you’re wandering around the school with someone who is only two or three years older than you but so much cooler.

This someone, you learn, has got your back.

Connections

The Link Crew’s welcome should not be mistaken for an elaborate cheerleading session.

“It’s based on group development theory,” said Shelly Learned, a Craig science teacher and Link Crew leader. “The idea is that to get a group to reach a goal together, you start with a low-risk activity and gradually build up until the leader of the group steps away.”

Learned and fellow teacher Nikki Shucha brought the Link Crew to Craig after undergoing intensive training by the Boomerang Project, a national organization that developed the curriculum.

At both Craig and Parker, the introduction of Link Crews resulted in fewer freshmen failing classes, a reduced truancy rate and more participation in school activities, Learned said.

Those trends lead to better success in high school and afterward, according to Redefiningready.org. The organization, formed by the School Superintendents Association, found school attendance, participation in at least two co-curricular activities and community service are all strong indicators of career success.

The “safety scores” also went up at both schools. Safety scores come from student surveys that ask if students feel safe or welcomed in their school environment.

Link Crew members stay connected with their freshmen for the rest of the year. At Parker, specific days are dedicated to Link Crew-freshmen activities. At Craig, special activities are planned; more often, the interaction is more informal.

Final challenge

The Link Crews’ freshman welcome day ends with a challenge.

One of the last activities is a game called “64 Squares.” Freshmen have to find their way through a maze of sorts.

Some go boldly, others more uncertainly. Their peers shout encouragement and advice.

The point?

“There might be setbacks or challenges in finding the right path through high school,” Learned said.

Peers will make suggestions, and teachers can guide and help you. But in the end, you are responsible for making your own path.

“Sometimes freshmen are timid and don’t take advantage of the systems that are in place or the opportunities that are offered,” Learned said. “This helps them develop those skills.”

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