“I never want to leave. I could do this all day,” said VanGorden Elementary School student Samantha Osores halfway through her shift mentoring preschoolers just down the hall from her sixth grade classroom. The experience has even set her sights on early childhood education as a future career option.
Samantha is one of just over 100 sixth-graders who volunteered for the re-launch of VanGorden’s long-standing student mentorship program this school year, which was temporarily paused due to health restrictions brought on by COVID. The program takes advantage of VanGorden’s unique position as the only Lakota elementary school with preschoolers residing under the same roof.
“We have had so many students interested in this program over the years, which tells me that our sixth grade students really value acts of service and giving back to younger students in our building,” said VanGorden counselor and program advisor Rachel Smith. “It has been wonderful to see the relationships they’ve formed.”
Twice a week, for about eight weeks at a time, a portion of the full volunteer corps gives up their daily recess, swapping out time with their peers for time with VanGorden’s youngest learners. With two to three students assigned to each classroom, every day looks a little different for the student mentors.
At times, students may engage in free play with their partners, reinforcing such soft skills as using their manners or sharing with others. Other days, they may sit in on carpet time or even serve as an extra set of hands for a daily routine like preparing to go outside for recess.
Lakota’s preschool program is designed to serve both students with a range of disabilities as well as typical preschool students who pay a tuition to attend. The model is built on the premise that preschool-aged students with disabilities, as well as those with typical learning styles, can both benefit and grow academically by learning alongside one another.
“This has been such a wonderful experience for our sixth grade students to gain patience, empathy and understanding,” Smith said.
Preschool Director Diane Keene was fully supportive of the program’s return when Smith approached her about it. She particularly enjoys seeing the older students engage in activities that they would otherwise consider “too cool” for their age. She also appreciates their curiosity about “why we do what we do” to meet different students’ needs.
With a younger sister with special needs, sixth-grader Landen Upchurch is especially passionate about his role as a mentor. He has enjoyed the opportunity to “physically interact” with students who are part of VanGorden, “rather than just waving at them from a distance.” And as much as he’s gained from the experience, he thinks the benefit to his younger counterparts is even greater.
“I think they get a lot out of meeting someone closer to their age to spend time with during the day,” Landen said.
- real world learning
- special education