- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
As if a sudden move from Naples, Italy, to Waldorf didn’t jar them enough, 17-year-old twins Maria and Mary Beard also were starting at a new school in the middle of the academic year.
But the twins — who began attending North Point High School in November 2012 — had an instant friend on their first day, thanks to the school’s Student 2 Student program.
Student 2 Student programs were started by the nonprofit Military Child Education Coalition, based in Harker Heights, Texas. The purpose of the program is to train civilian and military-connected middle and high school students to establish and sustain peer-based programs in their schools to help transferred children transition to and from the school. For middle schools, the program is called Junior Student 2 Student.
“Student 2 Student helps a lot just by being there. You don’t know anybody, and then there’s someone to welcome you and befriend you and take you places,” Mary said of the transition to North Point.
Dawn Simpson is employed by the U.S. Navy to work as a school liaison officer to help military children make transitions in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. The school liaison officer for Charles County is Lolita Gunter. In addition to working directly with military families who are about to or have already transferred, Simpson and Gunter also have helped introduce S2S to some Southern Maryland middle and high schools.
Simpson said that while military families “follow the same guidelines everybody else does” when it comes to students having to attend the schools in their district, they do often select where they are going to move based on the school their children would be attending.
In 2011, Simpson contacted Chopticon High School guidance counselor Chris White about establishing S2S at her school. White jumped on the opportunity and attended Military Child Education Coalition training with students Abbey Liverman, 17, and Tori White, 17, in Dallas.
Abbey said the purpose of the training was for future S2S members to experience what it is like to be in a social situation and not know anyone.
“They split us up from the start,” Abbey said. “They do it to really break you out of your shell so you feel like a new student does when they’re immersed in a new environment.”
“That was pretty much it the four days we were there,” Tori said, adding that during the training, they learned how to relate to new students in terms of academics, making friends and getting acclimated to a new community.
She said they were told to avoid asking questions like “why did you move here?”
“It may be a touchy subject,” Tori said.
“You want to focus on what they gained, not what they lost,” White explained.
One of the benefits of S2S that both White and North Point guidance counselor Maryanne Quirk noted is that mentors were matched with new students in terms of grade level and interest.
“You have to have full acceptance of that new kid, and you have to serve as a role model,” Quirk said. “You can’t really say, ‘Oh, I didn’t like that kid.’ ... More often than not, they become friends. Most of the students who would volunteer to do this are really good kids, and they’re in difficult classes.”
To be in S2S at Chopticon, which currently has 49 members, White said a student needs to have letters of recommendation and at least a 2.5 GPA, and they need to answer a set of questions. She said it is not uncommon for a new student who had positive experiences with S2S to stay on as a mentor.
“They know what it’s like to be a military child — what it’s like to move,” White said.
Ninth-grader Lauren Mosley started attending Chopticon in early January after moving from Orange County, N.Y., when her father got a job at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
She said the toughest part of the transition has been adjusting to curriculum changes. Lauren explained that ninth- and 11th-grade history classes are flip-flopped from her former school and new school, so she is now in a world history class with mostly high school juniors. When she is a junior, she will be in U.S. history with mostly freshmen.
Lauren said she has attended school in Japan, New York and Pennsylvania, with the majority of her transfers being in the middle of a school year.
“The cafeteria is the worst part. ... There are so many groups of people, and you don’t know who’s nice. You don’t want to go to a random person and say, ‘Can I sit with you?’” Lauren said.
“They say the first two weeks are the hardest. If you don’t feel like you fit in in the first two weeks, your experience won’t be as nice,” Abbey said.
Lauren said she still eats lunch with the same group of people with whom S2S matched her up.
“They became my friends,” she said.
Mill Creek Middle School in Lusby is now in its second year of having a Junior S2S organization. Its staff moderator, guidance counselor Kelly Shatzer, said the main difference between S2S and Junior S2S is that “high schoolers get to go to Texas. We just went to Solomons.”
Shatzer said that with the 2011-2012 school year having a particularly high number of student transfers, her school opened the program to all new students, not just military.
She said the 13 Junior S2S members at Mill Creek also put together care packages for students who have to transfer out of the school midyear.
“I just decided to do it because I like helping new kids,” said Mill Creek sixth-grader Dale Anderson, 11, who said his mom once served in the U.S. Navy. “I don’t want new kids to feel like an outcast. I want them to feel automatically welcomed when they come here to a new school environment.”
“They move all the time, so they can’t really have a stable home or stable friends. They probably get nervous at times,” Mill Creek eighth-grader Breanna Johnson said of military children.
Mill Creek’s Junior S2S members said they conduct two or three socials a year for new students. During the socials, they said, they do team-building activities like “the human knot” and a game where students partner up and change something about their appearance that the partner has to guess. Junior S2S members are also assigned to sit with new students at lunch.
Chopticon’s S2S members said their club hosts a picnic every April for The Month of the Military Child. During the picnic, Abbey said, parents are invited to share their stories and publicly thank their children for their willingness to adjust their lifestyle.
Tori said the club also has hosted “Purple-Up Fridays,” where all Chopticon students are invited to wear purple, the color of the military, and S2S members hand out purple ribbons.
“It was really neat to see,” Abbey said.
At North Point, Quirk estimated that “a good 10th of our population is military.”
She likened new students being welcomed by S2S to joining a sport. “You have an instant in with some kids,” Quirk said.
The Beard sisters said the size of the school has been somewhat overwhelming but that making friends has been easy.
“When you’re accustomed to moving all your life, you just pick up things faster, like socializing or playing a sport. ... You’re very sensitive to the ways of the world,” Maria said.
She and Mary explained that they spent three weeks out of school while their family house-hunted in Washington, D.C. Maria said they ultimately settled in Waldorf because the houses were a better fit for their family of five.
“That was really stressful because we’re seniors,” she said.
The Beard twins said that throughout their 17 years, they have lived in Italy, Guam, Washington, Virginia and South Carolina.
North Point sophomore Gabrielle Bianes, 15, transferred to the school during late September of her freshman year. Having grown up in Prince George’s County prior to moving to Florida, she said coming back to the area was a smooth transition.
“People are really friendly here, for the most part,” said Gabrielle, who is now a S2S mentor at North Point. She said she attended a training camp for the program early in the school year to learn strategies for how to get new students out of their shell.
“You try to get them as involved as possible in the school and be really transparent,” she said.
As students work with each other, Simpson said she remains in close contact with their parents.
She said the main piece of advice she gives them is not to be afraid to ask for help “in whatever area that is.”
Simpson said she has been impressed with the growing number of school guidance counselors and administrators who have been taking time to attend trainings offered by the Military Child Education Coalition. “I think that shows a willingness to support our families,” she said.