Watsonville High School Link Crew members cheer on an incoming freshman Friday as part of a campus tradition to provide a warm welcome to new students. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)
WATSONVILLE — Walking into high school for the first time as a freshman can be a scary, bewildering experience.
Perched at the precipice of a difficult four-year journey and winding through a labyrinth of new hallways, classrooms and faces, it is easy to feel lost and alone.
But for more than 500 students at Watsonville High School Friday morning, those first steps will be smoothed somewhat by the Link Crew, a team of older students who take on the role of mentor, friend and tour guide for the freshmen.
The Link Crew is part of the school’s “Bridge to High School Mentor Program,” designed to make the first day of school on Monday a bit easier.
Participation in the program is not limited to students with high grades, nor is it for those who excel in sports, drama or other academic areas. Instead, students are recommended for Link Crew by teachers who recognize their leadership skills.
The fulcrum of the program might be the first-day orientation, but it doesn’t end there.
The Link Crew mentors also make personal contacts throughout the year, making sure their academic and social lives are on track.
Before the Link Crew members were assigned their group of 12 or so freshmen, Principal Elaine Legorreta and other adult administrators addressed the teeming mass of freshmen, encouraging them to get involved in one of the school’s 25 clubs or one of the sports teams.
Legorreta’s message to the students was short but succinct: they are fortunate to have such a program.
“When I started in 1974, we didn’t have Link Crew,” she said. “These people will be with you all year.”
After Link Crew organizer Debi Michel got the kids excited with a series of icebreaker games and chants designed to ease the tension in the room, it was up to the student mentors to do the rest.
Junior Noemi Rodriguez, 16, said she remembers the looming specter of high school.
“As a freshman I was nervous to come,” she said.
But her Link Crew mentor was helpful, giving her a tour and encouraging her to participate in school clubs.
“I do this to show them around,” she said.
Sarahi Mendoza, 16, was standing in front of the school’s John Goicovich gymnasium, waiting for new freshmen to arrive.
She said she wanted to participate in the Link Crew to help students who, like her, found themselves in an unfamiliar situation.
“As a new student, you don’t know your way around and you don’t know anyone,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone to help.”
Michael Angulo, 18, is a third-generation WHS student who also participated in Link Crew last year.
“It’s a really interesting and fun extracurricular thing, and I really enjoy it,” he said. “I never see so much energy and exuberance in one place. I don’t know how many other schools have Link Crews, but this school is lucky to have it.”
Crystal Cornelo-Perez, 14, said she was “excited and nervous” for school to start, but said she believed having a mentor would help her get through her year.
Brenna Roby, 14, on the other hand, said she couldn’t wait for school to begin.
“I’ve been told this is a great school,” she said.
Still, she said the Link Crew was a good resource she wished could have been available earlier in her educational career.
“In middle school, a lot of people get lost on the first day,” she said.
Alejandro Barreto-Anaya, 14, admitted he felt a bit nervous to be there.
“But I’m with my friends, so it’s not so bad,” he said.
No stranger to the WHS campus because of soccer practices held there, Barreto-Anaya was nevertheless a bit overwhelmed.
“It’s comforting to have the Link Crew, because the campus is so big,” he said.
Link Crew was created in 1992 by Santa Cruz-based The Boomerang Project as a collaboration of Harbor High School teachers Mary Beth Campbell and Carolyn Hill.
A Bay Area school having a hazing problem asked the pair to help, and their success there prompted other schools to ask for the same program, Campbell said.
“That turned into the Link Crew,” she said. “We started training other teachers to do what we we’re doing.”
Since then, the program has spread to more than 3,000 schools in the U.S., Canada and Thailand, with more than a million students participating, Campbell said.
“We’re just thrilled that this many kids will know what it’s like to start at a school and feel safe and be welcomed,” she said. “That’s our goal.”
Having a negative experience as a high school freshman can have long-lasting effects. According to The Boomerang Project, more students fail ninth grade than any other grade.
For middle schools, The Boomerang Project also runs Where Everybody Belongs, otherwise known as WEB, at 2,000 schools.
“At the very least they know that someone went through some trouble to make this day great and they can feel safe,” Campbell said.
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