116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — In a new program that began this academic year, Linn-Mar High School freshman meet weekly with a teacher, who acts more like a mentor, and a small group of other students to talk about life, mental health, academics and post-high school plans.
The program, 9th-grade Connection, seeks to increase positive relationships between staff and students.
When students moved to virtual learning in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers found it hard to stay connected to their students, said Kimberly Buelt, Linn-Mar High School associate principal. Students who are currently freshman also experienced disruptions in their learning in middle school — a pivotal time to help prepare students for high school — because of the pandemic, Buelt said.
Teachers wanted to do something different to connect to the new students and “get them off to a good start,” Buelt said.
Once a week or more, teachers meet with groups of five to six students assigned to them about academics, social-emotional health and college planning.
“My goal is every student in the building has at least one person they can turn to,” Buelt said. “Teachers feel like they’re being a little more impactful on that small group of kids.”
When freshmen are attending their Connection class, sophomores, juniors and seniors spend time in the study hall, cafeteria or other common areas or are allowed to go off campus if they have parental permission.
Buelt is hopeful when the current freshman are in 10th, 11th and 12th grade, they will continue to informally touch base with their Connection teacher.
High school is “an adjustment” and Connection gives students the chance to ask questions they maybe wouldn’t feel comfortable asking during class, said Malory Torres, Linn-Mar health and fitness teacher. Torres, who graduated from Linn-Mar in 2014, said she loved attending the school and now is working with some of her former teachers.
“Our school is so big, but now I know five kids really well, and I’m one person they can go to if they need help,” Torres said.
A few weeks ago, Torres spent 20 minutes debating with her student which local restaurant has the best tacos. Before the holiday break in December, they decorated cookies as a class.
The Connection teachers also help students plan what classes they should take throughout high school, especially if there’s a career field they’re interested in. As a newer teacher, Torres said her students are teaching her as much as she’s teaching them.
Kim Bowen, a school counselor, said the program is a great way for a big school to build smaller communities within it.
“There’s one person beside their school counselor for them to go to if they need resources or help,” Bowen said. “There is research that shows if a kid is connected to at least one adult in the building, they are going to be more successful. We have to make this big place seem smaller or we are going to lose students.”
Brett Van Hove teaches World History at Linn-Mar, a class mainly for students in their sophomore year. There are five freshmen students in Van Hove’s Connection class.
“I don’t teach freshmen, so for me it’s nothing vs. something,” Van Hove said.
Van Hove feels more like a mentor to his freshman students than a teacher. He hopes his classroom continues to be a place over the next four years for his Connection students to “pop in and ask questions” beyond talking about classes and grades.
The district plans to continue the program every year, until every student in the building has taken Connection as a freshman has developed a relationship with an adult in the high school.
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