Way back, in the times of the one-room schoolhouse, older students helped the younger ones learn how to read and do multiplication. At Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, the students put a modern twist on the age-old practice: High school students teach sixth-graders how to create an inclusive school culture and navigate the tumultuous entry into a new school.
That's the thinking behind the "Welcoming Allies and Mentors" program, or WAM, as it's known at the 300-student, grade 6-12 school. It's a mentoring and bullying prevention initiative started at LACS two years ago by a group of students under the guidance of social worker Celia Clement, a member of the Ithaca Teachers Association.
Sixth-graders and new students are paired up with upperclassmen during the orientation, which is run entirely by the WAM mentors.
What makes this program different is that it is orchestrated largely by the students — not adults.
"That's how you get the buy-in," Clement said. "You can't just have the adults telling the kids, top down, what to do. These kids have taken our homegrown program in directions I never would have dreamed of."
While Lehman is a small alternative community school where students are accepted through a lottery, Clement insists the WAM model could work in any school.
At a time when schools around the state are implementing anti-bullying programs to meet the state's new Dignity for All Students Act regulations, the WAM program is being presented at BOCES sessions and in-service workshops. This fall, Clement is working with Ithaca City High School and an area elementary school to start their own grassroots mentoring programs.
"I hear about schools buying expensive commercial anti-bullying programs, but this is such an inexpensive initiative," Clement said. "It takes time and energy from an adult who is dedicated to sustain the program and keep it student-centered."
Clement credited strong administrative support and school psychologist Beth Taplitz and teacher Kaile Tsapis, who help with coordination.
The WAM program began in 2010 with a core team of students — not just the "star" students, Clement noted. "We wanted diversity, including very shy students and those who had gotten into trouble themselves," Clement said. "We are noticing that students who never thought of themselves as leaders have become strong leaders as a result of their WAM experience."
Ongoing activities include weekly meetings and fun activities like an ice cream social, a stress ball-making clinic, and a study skills session that included a backpack organizing contest.
When older students stress the importance of organization, it means more than it does when it comes from a teacher, students agreed.
"Matching middle school kids with high school kids creates a unique dynamic," said senior Aviv Hilbig-Bokaer. "Whether we realize it or not, the younger kids look up to us."
As part of their work last year, WAM students conducted a student survey asking how the school's climate could be improved. The survey revealed an unexpected problem: budging in the cafeteria line.
It had been going on for years, where older and higher status students felt entitled to budge in front of the younger, or less popular, students.
WAM took it on, agreeing there was a deeper issue: respect. The WAM kids brainstormed ways to stop the problem. Older students took turns monitoring the budging and simply confronted the perpetrators.
"It was better to have a kid say, 'Hey, you can't do that' than to have a teacher standing there," said Bram Baxter, who admitted he was once one of the budgers himself. "Yeah, when you call them on it, they usually feel pretty silly." Within a few weeks, the budging stopped almost entirely. WAM students felt successful and important. And the new sixth graders felt heard and supported.
The WAM student leaders have taken on other issues, such as cyberbullying.
One older student met regularly with three younger girls to help them move beyond "mean girls" behavior. Others have stepped up to serve as special mentors for students in need, such as a WAM student on the autism spectrum helping a new student who is also on the autism spectrum.
WAM's web page features a quote from the Holocaust Museum that defines the group's goal: "Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander."
"We've moved from being helpful bystanders to being upstanders," said student Carson Jordan. "That's the heart of it."
Most important is having the kids take the lead, noted NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, who visited the school this spring after seeing the students on a panel.
"The strength of this program is that the students own it," Cutler said. "Student buy-in permeates every corner of this building."