A fist bump in the hallway is one of the signs that a program to help elementary students make a smooth transition to high school life is engaging students at Walter Murray Collegiate.
Link Crew is a mentorship program that sees incoming Grade 9 students welcomed to the school each fall by a group of senior student leaders. Those leaders serve as a resource and mentor to the first-year students during the important first few weeks of school and throughout the rest of the school year.
Emerald Schneider is one of approximately 50 Link Crew leaders who took two days out of their summer break to receive training ahead of orientation day. The experience of leading a "crew" of Grade 9 students through orientation has translated into connections with those students and a belief that the program provides a positive welcome to high school life.
"In my own personal experience I have become friends with some of the people that are in my crew. I'll see them in the hallways and we'll do a fist bump or say hi. I have gotten to know some of their friend groups and I know that some of them are friends are within my crew that I work with," said Schneider.
"I feel like, yes, it is making a lot of good connections. A lot of times you are coming into Grade 9 and you don't know anyone except for who is from your elementary school."
Link Crew was launched at Walter Murray in the fall of 2015 and approximately 200 of the incoming class of 300 Grade 9 students took part in orientation, which takes place one day before classes began. Student participation increased in 2016 and Link Crew has quickly become an important part of the school's culture, according to teacher Travis Myrol.
"Orientation is about culture building and relationship building. The program is designed to occupy the students for the whole morning and to infuse them with a kind of energy and comfort," said Myrol, adding that staff have reported the program's noticeable effect on first-year students. "Our teachers speak very highly that on the first day of classes the Grade 9s are ready to learn."
"On orientation day they get put into a crew and go through a series of ice-breaker and get-to-know-you games as part of a very structured program with the Link Crew leaders. By the end of the morning they all know each other extremely well and on Day 1 when they come to school there is a guarantee they know 12 to 15 kids in their class as well as two older kids in Grade 11 or 12."
Taylor Tombs, who entered Grade 9 in September of 2016, says the introduction to the school and fellow students provided by Link Crew played a big role in making herself and others comfortable as new students at Saskatoon's largest high school.
"The Link Crew has changed me (in terms of) being open to Walter Murray and being able to make the transition to high school maybe easier than other schools. Being in groups with different people that you have no idea who they are and doing these activities together builds on social skills," she said.
Orientation day is the most visible aspect of the Link Crew but the student leaders have also been involved in collegiate open house events as well as the "spend-a-day" event in June when Grade 8 students receive their fall timetables and have an opportunity to learn about the location of classes and other building amenities.
And while a friendly face or a fist bump in the hallway are reminders of the bond established between Grade 9 students and their Link Crew leaders, there is also on-going support at other times during the school year.
"We have academic follow-ups where we have Link leaders go into classrooms and lead a Grade 9 class in an activity where they draw out a lesson for the students," Myrol said. "We have socials for the Grade 9s such as we had a movie night back in September to welcome them to the building. There are lots of different connection points."
Although Link Crew is primarily designed to support new students the program's benefits are also experienced by the Grade 11 and 12 students who volunteer as leaders. Schneider and fellow leader Sean Lockerbie agree that their experience as leaders provided them with new skills and made them feel more comfortable working with others and taking a leadership role in classes and the school community.
"I feel like it would be a good life lesson in general. To be a role model to somebody else is very interesting because I have always looked up to people and now I have people looking up to me," Schneider said.
The energy and passion of the program has played an important role in smoothing Grade 9 transitions and building a positive school atmosphere, said Principal Tom Sargeant, and Myrol believes the strength of Link Crew will only become more apparent as the years go by.
"We are going in to our third year so we are looking forward to some growth. For the first time next year the Grade 9 cohort that first experienced Link Crew is going to enter Grade 11 and be eligible for leadership," he said. "Next year we are going to see some of the fruit for the labour that the kids have put in to really establish that culture of leadership and welcoming at Walter Murray. Responsive teaching and a sense of belonging for all is our motto, so that is what we are trying to model with the kids."