Grace Simpson had no idea what to expect entering high school.
At 14, she faced a double whammy.
Not only was she leaving the security of elementary school behind, the bubbly teenager was also departing the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, deciding to complete her high school years at Sir Winston Churchill Collegiate and Vocational Institute, under the Lakehead Public Schools umbrella.
In many ways it meant starting all over again.
First and foremost, the collection of friends she had built up would no longer be there to provide instant support. It worried her.
“I came here not knowing anybody,” she said on Thursday, after taking part in the Churchill- and Thunder Bay District Health Unit-sponsored seminar Come as You Are, a program designed to teach Grade 9 students how to better cope with stresses they might be facing entering high school.
In Grace’s case, the program worked.
“The Ambassadors really helped me get to know a lot of Grade 9s and I made a whole new group of friends.”
The Ambassadors are a group of Grade 12 students, tasked by school officials to ease the transition from Grade 8 into Grade 9, a potentially traumatic move for many.
“I was really worried about the work and how hard it would be,” Grace said, “and also the social scene and if I would fit in. But it was really easy. The teachers help you understand all the homework and the kids are really nice and they help you fit in.”
Students learned stress comes from all directions, but they were also taught they are not alone and there are plenty of mechanisms available to help them cope – friends who will help them through their problem, listening to music or not being afraid to say no if they’re feeling overwhelmed with school work and other activities.
Eric Tempelman is a Grade 12 student at Churchill who this year chose to join the Ambassador program, to help the latest generation of fellow students start their high-school careers off right. He said he only wished there was a program like Come As You Are in place when he first arrived at Churchill.
“The whole transition from Grade 8 to Grade 9 was huge, going from a school with just over 200 kids to a school with just over 1,000 students,” Eric said.
“Being the small kid around the school with all the big Grade 12s, but now I’m the Grade 12 and it seems such a big difference, going from Grade 9 to 12.
He offered up a bit of advice to the incoming students, most of who will make up the class of 2016.
“The most important thing is to just be yourself and be confident in who you are,” he said. “Because if you shy away from yourself, you’re just not going to fall into the right group and you could stray away from things. It is very difficult … and you need peer help. You need your friends to be there with you.”
Teacher and student service worker Ryan McDonnell helped organize the event, and said the program was developed last year with the assistance of a Grade 11 peer leadership class, to find out what the issues were facing students arriving at Churchill for the first time.
“Then we created some activities and planned some events to help students adjust to high school, hoping to lead to long-term academic success, as well as social and emotional well-being,” he said.
The stresses are plenty, he added.
“We often forget the stresses kids are under. But all the evidence shows that times of transition, moving from school to school, having parents get separated, these are the times when students get stressed out and are most likely to turn to risk-taking behaviours, so substance abuse, truancy, those sorts of things.
“Our intention with this program was to pair the kids up with a senior student to act as a mentor to them, to show them around and we’ll check in with them for the first few weeks of school.”
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