For many pre-teens and teenagers, middle school is a place of cliques, rejection and uncertainty as students “try on” different identities and seek a way to belong.
To help for these students, Abilene Middle School has chosen to combat bullying and increase student success and satisfaction through its new program, Longhorn Leaders.
Longhorn Leaders gives 8th grade students the leadership opportunity to welcome 6th-graders and other students who are new to the district. Longhorn Leaders help students learn to use lockers and iPads, find their classes, adjust to AMS and make friends.
Mark Shreve, guidance counselor of AMS and director of the program, said AMS is the only middle school he knows of that hosts this kind of program throughout the entire school year.
Longhorn Leader Sydney Stout, 8th-grader at AMS, said the program serves as a support system for 6th-graders and new students.
“I think we helped a lot of people through anger issues,” Stout said. “When you get stressed, your brain, you just get mad, and I think having that lean-to helps. Having them have somebody there so they know what to do.”
Stout said she has seen the program draw 6th graders and new students forth from fear to fun. Stout demonstrated the way many students walk on their first day of middle school versus after time with Longhorn Leaders. To demonstrate first-day stride, Stout hunched her shoulders, clenched her fists and drew them into her chest. A transformed 6th-grader or new student stands tall and relaxed, Stout said.
“The first day of school, especially, they all walk around like they’re so scared but I think that school should be somewhere that they have fun and learn and are able to meet with their friends between passing periods,” Stout said. “When we asked them what they thought we needed to help them with, they said, ‘Being scared about getting shoved into a locker by the 8th-graders.’ They think we’re all the big bad ones but we’re really not.”
Harly Koker, 6th-grader at AMS, experienced two big changes at once: she moved from McPherson to Abilene and she transitioned from elementary school to middle school. Koker said the Longhorn Leaders helped her through these changes.
“I was having really bad stress my first few days of school because I didn’t really know anybody but then both of them (two Longhorn Leaders) came up and asked me how I was doing and I said, ‘OK, but I’m still having a little stress because I don’t have all my friends here,’” Koker said. “They helped a lot. They helped me meet my best friends.”
Koker said she anticipates receiving more support from Longhorn Leaders when her next transition arises.
“I’ll be moving again in three years because I’m (part of) an Army family,” Koker said. “When it comes time, they’ll be there to help me get through.”
Denise Guy, USD 435 superintendent, said Longhorn Leaders started after Mark Shreve, guidance counselor of AMS, learned about the program at an educators’ conference.
“He’s really kind of the brainchild behind it,” Guy said. “He’s got programs throughout the whole year. He’s got a map of what he wants his leaders to partake in and how they work with the other students in the school, and how they can continue to develop that relationship between the older students and the younger students to try to make the younger students feel valued.”
Shreve said he wanted to start the program at AMS not only for the needs of 6th-graders and new students but also for 8th-graders with leadership potential.
“I felt a need for 6th-graders to help them transition into a middle school setting. There’s a brand new building and a schedule with seven different classes, and I really thought that would be helpful for students to learn from other students who have been here for a while,” Shreve said. “The other thing is, we just really wanted to start teaching leadership skills. We go into the community, we have service learning like Salvation Army bell ringing and we go to the elementary schools and give presentations. We’re doing a lot of active things like that.”
Guy said she would like to see the program grow. This is the first year of Longhorn Leaders, and there are 24 leaders this year.
“Our hope is that our students have a good experience in school so we put in a lot of different programs so we can try to meet the needs of each student,” Guy said. “I would like to see (kids who receive help from Longhorn Leaders) eventually become a Longhorn Leader, that they could go and pay it forward and help other students.”
Guy said she wants Longhorn Leaders’ experiences to carry into high school and beyond.
“I hope they apply some of those leadership skills in other walks of life even as they move into high school,” Guy said. “How could they look for ways to help others and continue to be the advocate for those that need an advocate?”