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Massena High School students bond through Learn to Lead program

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MASSENA — Twenty-eight Massena High School students used boating, mountain climbing, high ropes and campfire sessions to get to know one another better.

The students spent three days together at SUNY Cortland’s Camp Huntington Outdoor Education Center in Raquette Lake as part of the school’s Learn to Lead program, which links juniors and seniors with freshmen and sophomores who might be facing challenges either personally or academically.

“We do a bunch of activities — team building and trust activities to break down the barriers. It provides extra support. It’s intensive,” ninth-grade guidance counselor Erin Covell said.

She said the Learn to Lead program was started by physical education teacher Mary Arcadi with the support of the special education staff in 2007 as a way to mentor special education students. But now its focus is on underclassmen who might be having issues at school or on a personal level.

“We found it’s more beneficial to students who are not connected to school,” Ms. Covell said, noting mentors “learn what it’s like to have a different perspective about school. Everybody learns something.”

This year’s effort was in jeopardy, however, because the program had been cut in the budget.

Interim Superintendent William W. Crist “put it back in for us,” guidance counselor Robert Jordan said.

Linking up students was made easier because of the implementation of the Link Crew program at the high school. Link Crew students are juniors and seniors who have volunteered to act as mentors for freshmen at the beginning of the year. Each Link Crew team has approximately 10 to 12 freshmen students who are in contact with each other throughout the year to help ease the transition to high school.

“Link Crew is a big help,” Mr. Jordan said. “For at-risk students, we have to find leaders who fit that personality.”

The three-day camping trip’s activities included breakfast, lunch, dinner, high ropes, homework and time at a campfire. The final day included breakfast, cabin cleanup, a boat trip over the lake and a hike up a mountain.

“It’s a natural progression. It builds up to the end — hiking up the mountain,” Mr. Jordan said.

Every event has a purpose, he said, whether it’s participating in a high-ropes exercise to build trust or sitting around a campfire and sharing stories to build a relationship between the students.

“The campfire was the best part,” said senior Josh Blair, one of the mentors.

“That’s when we got to see people open up and express themselves,” said junior Emily Wilmshurst, another mentor.

“Students feel comfortable telling their story. They see the leaders in front of them opening up and they also open up,” Mr. Jordan said.

Teamwork is emphasized during meals, and there’s also time for students to get together for homework, with mentors providing tutoring.

Meals are “family-style,” Mr. Jordan said, and students can be responsible for tasks such as setting the tables or cleaning.

“There’s a certain amount of pride involved in the whole meal,” he said.

The students and staff who participated in the three-day excursion said it provided a valuable experience to all.

“It brought a bunch of teenagers together who had never interacted with each other and made them a united family,” said senior Nikki Zeitzmann, who moved from Georgia to Massena and is in her first year at Massena High School.

Because of the experience, Ms. Zeitzmann said, she’s considering a change in careers.

“This trip has really benefited me. It showed me the path I want to go in life. I feel able to help people in a positive way,” she said. “It really impacted my life.”

Mr. Jordan said the Learn to Lead and Link Crew programs can help teachers.

“Teachers have less time that they’re able to connect with students. There’s less faculty and less connections,” he said. “Link Crew is timely for us, to be able to bring relationships among peers.”

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