Mattea Peters doesn’t have to remember back too far to recall how she felt as a freshman at Homer High School.
“I was pretty intimidated by all the older kids,” said Mattea, now a senior and part of the school’s peer mentoring program that matches seniors and freshman.
“I think this helps freshmen not be so freaked out by the whole high school thing. And it helps academically if they’re struggling because we can help with homework.”
Logan Reveil, also a senior, only has to think back a year to know what it’s like to be new at a school.
“I only recently moved here because I was living on a sailboat,” said Logan. Through his middle school years and continuing through his freshman and sophomore high school years, Reveil and his family were at sea and he was homeschooled.
“But in some ways I can identify with them better for being a new student at a high school,” he said of putting his experience to use helping this year’s incoming freshman adjust to a new school environment.
For senior Sydney Paulino, the hardest part of her freshman year “was probably being responsible for absolutely everything, not having a teacher that would guide you with getting your homework done and getting your studying done. All of a sudden it was a personal responsibility that you took on.”
This is the third year Homer High special service teacher Paul Gutzler and guidance counselor Paul Story have facilitated the school’s peer mentoring program, with seniors helping freshmen make the transition to high school.
“It’s the best when you see quality seniors, good kids at the top of their class, hanging out with freshmen. That’s not something you always see,” said Gutzler of students who have been there, done that, helping others.
In addition to the social benefits of freshmen knowing they have upper classmen in their corner, the program also offers an academic boost, with one day a week spent working on homework. Based on the first two years the program was in place, Gutzler said an increased grade point average is one of the benefits, sometimes as much as a 140 percent jump.
The idea for the peer-mentoring program came after Story and Gutzler saw freshmen struggling in their classes.
“We thought we needed to do a little more to help them right off the bat,” he said.
“So what’s the best asset Homer High School has? The students. So, we just kind of paired them up. If we saw a student failing in classes, we had seniors willing to help out. It’s worked well.”
With her graduation only 10 months away, Mattea said she realizes how important it is to not put off preparing for college.
“There was the whole idea of how much it actually mattered college-wise at that point, to start freshman year off preparing for college and not slacking off,” she said of what she wants to pass along to younger students.
Seniors also benefit from the program, which helped Logan and Mattea decide to participate when Story and Gutzler told them about the program during their junior years.
“We can use it for our senior service hours,” said Logan.
Sydney enjoys spending time with the freshmen.
“I know my freshman year was really tough for me, so anything I can do to help these kids is important,” she said.
Mattea’s motivation echoes Sydney’s.
“It’s just good for us to get to work with someone younger and help them out, to share our wisdom,” said Mattea.
Before classes began last month, seniors interested in the program were given training in confidentiality, communication and responsibility. A meet-and-greet was held during freshman orientation. Last week the students spent time together at Bishop’s Beach, roasting marshmallows and playing games, including building a shelter.
“The idea was that all of a sudden Homer High had become a boarding school and we had to set up an area that was going to be a rooming area. We were supposed to make it accommodating, comfortable, safe and pretty,” said Sydney, adding with a laugh that the shelter made by her group — four seniors and five freshman — was the best.
In the next two weeks, Story and Gutzler will match seniors with freshmen “and they’ll work together through the school year,” said Gutzler.
Activities are done as a group, with Gutzler and Story providing supervision.
“It’s a pretty laid back environment,” said Gutzler. “I think it works because it’s volunteer. It shows the positive side of high school and getting kids involved as much as possible.”
The program continues through March, ending with an incentive trip that allows a glimpse into a possible future.
“We visit the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, so going is an incentive for the freshmen to pass all their classes and for all the seniors that can attend,” said Gutzler. “It’s fun to watch the freshmen’s eyes open up and the seniors who might not have thought about going to UAA. It’s usually motivating for students.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.