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Tiger Links Kicks Off New Year

“Who’s happy to be in school?” English teacher Tom Stanfa shouted. The crowd of Chapel Hill High School freshmen shouted back.

“Who’s happy not to be in middle school?” and the noise tripled in response. On Friday morning, August 24, nearly 300 new Tigers jammed into the bleachers in the Chapel Hill High gym for the first segment of their orientation. Stanfa alternated between jokes, cheers and instructions to his captive audience, and soon the atmosphere resembled a pep rally.     

Freshman orientation at Chapel Hill High is shaped by the Tiger Links program, and Stanfa is the only staff person in the district who has trained with the national Link Crew. He begins preparing for each year’s orientation soon after the previous school year ends, and those preparations consume dozens of hours of his summer. Although he gets plenty of help from his student Link Leaders, a few parents and two other teachers, Stanfa is the maestro, the face and engine of Tiger Links.    

Fifteen years ago, former parent Suki Newton and her daughter launched a program that matched upperclassmen with groups of freshmen, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Tom Stanfa attended a training with the national Link Crew organization. “I’m a very jaded person and didn’t have the best attitude before the training,” he said. But he had a total change of heart early in the three day conference, and he returned a believer.

Stanfa declared, “There are three kinds of kids here - kids who make things happen, kids who watch things happen, and kids who’re always asking ‘What happened?’” And following a dramatic pause, he asked, “Which one are you going to be?”

“This morning 53 kids didn’t bother coming in - slept in, whatever.” However, he added later that every freshman is matched with a Link Leader, even those who don’t attend orientation.

After a round of activities, punctuated with snippets of information, students moved onto the gym floor for further games, starting with silent ordering in rows by height, and then the more challenging ordering by birthdates.

Stanfa warned them about the limitations that come from remaining “bungee cord buddies” in the transition from middle school to high school. He noted the temptation to pledge allegiance to best friends from middle school. “Take this class with me, no don’t do that, do that.” But he urged them all to branch out, with the goal of “becoming the best You you can be.”

After the first hour in the gym, freshmen learned who their Link Leaders were, and then they left for classrooms, for the next stage of orientation, with a pair of Leaders and nine or ten freshmen in each group.

The format and timeline of a year with Link Crew is carefully designed to ensure greater success for students transitioning from 8th to 9th grade. The philosophy driving much of the program is based on students helping students succeed.

This year began with nearly 100 trained Leaders, all juniors and seniors. They applied for their positions last spring and underwent a rigorous process including interviews and recommendations. “We want the face of the Leader team to match the face of the school,” said Stanfa. “It’s not based on grades. We want to know, ‘Can you bring it?’ and ‘Can you commit to the program?’” Their first training took place in June, and then they received additional training for two days before school started, ten hours total.

In my opinion Tiger Links is a program truly devoted to mentoring and preparing new students for Chapel Hill High!” said 11th grade Leader Victoria Fornville. “It teaches leadership and it gives you and the new students an opportunity to get to know one another, and have a friend to talk to.”

Robin Lin, mother of freshman Madi Lin, said, "I think the Tiger Links program at CHHS is incredibly helpful to incoming freshman as it provides a great way to get to know an upperclassman in a small group setting. Having a 'go to' person will be invaluable this year when questions arise!"

The program encompasses far more than the comprehensive orientation. Link Leaders check in with their freshmen during the first weeks of the school year, and they’ll be the organizers of social events throughout the year - cookouts, movies in Hanes Auditorium and other community-building activities. Sophomore Elizabeth Ekstrand said of her Leaders last year, “Mine would bring us candy and notes of encouragement.”

For the first time, the school administration has approved the addition of one Leader-led classroom visit each grading period during delayed openings. Subjects might include Goal-Setting, Prioritizing or Selecting Your Classes. Every freshman will participate in the quarterly lessons during English or social studies classes.

Anna Grace Komada, another 11th grade Link Leader, said, “I’m especially excited that Mr. Blanchard, our new principal, has approved quarterly Tiger Link meetings. This is so important for supporting the freshmen throughout the year and not just at orientation. It’s an honor to be a part of this program!”

The Gates Foundation, along with other educational organizations, cite abundant research indicating that a student’s likelihood of graduation from high school is determined in 9th grade. Once freshmen fall behind, they often become embarrassed or defeated, which accelerates a downward spiral.

In a 2011 study, participating schools were surveyed before and after implementation of Link Crew; the number of disciplinary referrals for 9th grade students was most dramatically impacted. On average, the referral rate dropped 37%. One school reported an almost 100% turnaround. The overall drop in absences was 33%.       

One other essential aspect of the Link Crew is the use of Leaders as part of a first level intervention when a freshman is struggling in one or more classes. Stanfa sends out periodic Link Alert forms which teachers can fill out if they’re worried about a student’s academic performance. Leaders can reach out to the students to find out what supports they might need - and accept.

When students begin to miss classes, an intervention or outreach from an older student can, in some cases, be more productive than from teachers. Students with C’s and D’s in middle school often begin to fail courses in high school.  

New principal Charles Blanchard has committed his full support to expanding and energizing this year-long program. He greeted the bleachers full of freshmen Friday morning with a message of welcome and optimism and added, “If you ever see me in the hallways and you need anything, just ask me.”   

Tiger Links gives them the comfort and courage to do just that!