Mentoring improves school culture at Post Falls

POST FALLS — It’s “cool to be nice” at Post Falls High, say both teachers and students at the North Idaho school.

The large school of more than 1,400 students in four grades “changed its culture” to a place with less fighting and bullying and more peer support and encouragement thanks to a 10-year effort led by teacher Samantha Starr.

“Our kids have gotten a lot nicer,” said Ryan Wood, a Post Falls economics teacher for the past 11 years. “Kids take care of each other here.”

Post Falls
Teacher Ryan Wood, senior Zach Smith, senior Sadie Schmeling and teacher Samantha Starr are leaders of a mentoring program at Post Falls High.

Starr orchestrates a student-mentoring strategy called Link Crew. In the program, juniors and seniors are trained to be “Link Leaders” and act as positive role models, motivators and mentors to incoming freshmen.

“It’s a different place than when I started,” said Starr, who receives annual training and programing from the national organization called Boomerang. “School pride is so improved as well as the way kids treat one another. I notice at events how different our student body behaves compared to others. It’s impressive.”

Seniors Sadie Schmeling and Zach Smith remember feeling welcomed by upper classmates when they were freshmen. It’s a feeling they want to reciprocate to high school newbies.

“I like knowing I’m a go-to when they need help,” Smith said.

Schmeling said: “Everyone accepts what it does for our school — it increases the positivity.”

Juniors and seniors who want to be mentors must pass an application and interview process and be recommended by teachers. They go through summer training, participate in team-building activities and most take a Link Leader elective class in the fall semester. Each has about six freshmen to mentor for a school year.

“We get to know them on a first-name basis and we check in on them regularly and send them notes of encouragement,” Smith said.

The Link Leaders also host a variety of events, including a freshman orientation before school starts. The upperclassmen surprise the freshmen with a “rocking and loud” celebration that includes dancing, chanting and singing. The freshmen run through a tunnel of juniors and seniors, who shell out high-fives and words of encouragement. The mentors give tours of the school while the freshmen receive their schedules and locker assignments. The orientation day makes the first day of school less intimidating, Smith said.

“This program was implemented to keep freshmen in school so they graduate,” said principal Chris Sensel. “You have to have teacher buy-in to pull it off and Samantha has been committed from the beginning.”

The Link Leaders host events throughout the year, including a movie night and tailgate party for Friday night football.

“We get them to feel comfortable and get involved,” Wood said.

Smith meets his new freshmen friends for coffee. Schmeling likes to take her mentees to ice cream.

“Our Link Leaders are from different walks of life — sports, band, drama, chess club,” Smith said.

Not only does the leadership program improve school culture, it also supports the community. The students collected blankets and gave them to homeless and animal shelters. They collected change from each other and donated nearly $1,000 to charities this year.

Starr said she’s most proud of the leadership training the students get in her class.

“I don’t remember most of my classmates from high school and so I challenge my students to look at the 30 faces in their class and be aware of the people around you,” she said. “I challenge them to talk to people you don’t know and study with someone you haven’t worked with before.”