My best friend’s a senior Union Hill High School 12th graders guide freshmen through the wonder years

Freshmen hanging out with seniors?

It’s uncommon for upperclassmen to mingle with the new class, but at Union Hill High School in Union City, a group of seniors is making the youngest members of the Hillers family feel at home.

“We’re making them feel comfortable in a new school and having a bond with them,” said Melanie Hernandez, 17.

The program is called the Peer Group Connection (PGC), in which 20 seniors serve as mentors for 150 freshmen. The program, which was instituted this year, aims to help incoming students adjust to their new environment and motivate them to get involved in school activities and improve academic performance. The program also seeks to create safe and caring communities where diversity is celebrated.

“It’s a class for seniors, which runs every day at fifth period and we give out assignments for the week,” said Marco Navas, group advisor and teacher. “Then every Thursday we go to the freshmen fifth period gym class and conduct team building activities and communication skills activities.”

“This year [the freshmen at the high school] were broken up into state mandated ‘houses’,” said Navas. “There are three houses of freshmen, but we’re only working with one house at the moment. We are currently mentoring House A.”

“I like helping people. If I am able to help, I would do it in a heartbeat,” said Aldo Grullon, 16. “This way we can help [the freshmen] out and we can all be one united school, because everyone comes to high school without knowing anyone else. Through this, we all become one big community.”

Spearheading the program are Navas, who is a history teacher and freshman dean, and Laura Marcos, a counselor at Union Hill.

Navas first presented the concept to the school after attending a seminar at the Princeton Center for Leadership Training.

“The school adopted the program, and we were given a grant of $25,000 by J.P. Morgan and PSE&G,” said Navas.

Getting to know you

The seniors have been meeting since the beginning of the school year, but their actual work with the freshmen house only began about four weeks ago.

Although they had been going to school together for the last four years, some had never met.

“Some of us only knew each other by name,” said Grisel Alberto, 17.

“It was kind of weird the first day because we were all very quiet with each other,” said Amelia Tejeda, 17.

As part of their preparation for the mentoring program, the seniors went away on a weekend retreat where they had a better chance to bond as well as learn the techniques they would be implementing in their mentoring groups.

“On the first day, they were working from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., and on the second day, from 8 a.m. until 4 a.m.,” said Navas.

Now the seniors, who come from many avenues of high school activities from athletics to the Student Council, have become fast friends.

“We’re a strong group because we also help each other out with problems on a daily basis,” said Hernandez, who is president of the senior class Student Council as well as captain of the cheerleading squad.

“My group of seniors all go out together,” said Navas.

Time to work

When it was time for the seniors to meet their freshmen groups they had first-day>
“My partner Cindy and I were nervous but all of them were so excited,” said Alberto.

The house of 150 freshmen is broken up into groups of 16, which are run by two seniors each.

“I have the bilingual group, so we also translate all the activities,” said Ismary Argueta. “My partner and I divide the work and sit down to translate it and type it up.”

“We had them pick their partners by talking amongst themselves, and everyone had to agree with the partners [selection],” said Navas. It took about three to four hours, but every one of our pairs is a total compliment of the other.”

Every Monday through Wednesday, the seniors have regular class where they discuss themes and goals for the week and structure their group activities.

“They give us a theme and we can change it up,” said Amelia.

“They plan everything out and they are totally responsible for all materials,” said Navas.

The overwhelming response from the freshmen class has been positive one and they look forward to Thursdays as much as the seniors.

“We’re helping ourselves too because when we go to college, we have methods of communication through the group,” said Ismary.

“The biggest benefit for me is that this is something that they will have for the rest of their lives,” said Navas.

The kids also recently held an Activities Day at the new Midtown Athletic Complex at the Jose Marti Middle School, where they all participated in various games that emphasized team building.

“We are involved with everything such as trying to set up fundraising for more activities with the freshmen,” said Hernandez.

One of the activities they are trying to get approval for is a freshman night, which will include the seniors, their families, and the Board of Education, so that everyone knows about the program.


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