WALLA WALLA — "Dear Liz," began Kayla Crain’s journal entry to her sixth-grade "pal."
"What do you wanna do when you grow up? I’m glad to have you as my pal! When you get the chance, please, write back!" the note finished.
Crain sat among dozens of Pioneer Middle School students who are participating in the first year of the PALS program at the school. On this recent morning, the teens gathered in a room off the school’s gymnasium, and sat at desks arranged in a large circle. With a stack of notebooks in front of them, they dispatched notes of encouragement and friendship to fellow Pioneer students.
Launched as a mentoring program to help ease the transition from elementary into middle school, PALS stands for Peer and Leadership Support. With its kick off before the start of school, the program has gone off to a positive start, with 50 seventh- and eighth-grade students connecting with their young pals.
Coordinated by Pioneer and GEAR UP staff, the program successfully paired all 220 incoming sixth-grade students with an older pal, at a ratio of about four to one. GEAR UP is a statewide program that helps students prepare for college.
Older "pals" were recommended by teachers to participate, and demonstrated a willingness to commit, as well as a positive attitude.
During the summer, the older students got a chance to meet their pals, and show them some of the ropes: like how to open their lockers.
"That’s always a big stress for sixth-graders," said Judy Anderson, a Pioneer counselor and PALS coordinator.
The journals are ongoing, and a chance for the students to exchange entries on what may be happening in school or in their personal lives. The older pals meet every-other week to update the journals, and the sixth-graders receive them in their language arts classes, where they then compose replies.
The journals become a writing exercise, as well as a chance to express thoughts or concerns.
Academic success is one apparent goal of the PALS program, and something that is aided when anxieties about starting a new school or struggling to fit in have an outlet. So there are also opportunities for more carefree social activities between pals, like eating lunch together one day.
"We try to mix social and academic," Anderson said. When the older students updated their journals last week, they also dispatched candy-grams.
Alexis Marcum, 14, was wrapping up entries to her five pals, three boys and two girls.
"I asked them what they want for Christmas, and if they’re having any problems in their classes," she said. She added the last question because one of her pals, in a recent journal entry, had asked if she ever had problems in her classes, and took that as a hint.
Marcum said she can think back to her own sixth-grade year and how daunting it seemed.
"It was a little scary," she said about the middle school transition.
Lani Kiefel is a sixth-grade teacher who has gotten to see the interaction between the older and younger students through the program.
"They’re phenomenal," she said about the older students, who visited their pals in class during a recent activity.
"It’s someone that they know they can go talk to," Kiefel said. "It’s like having a big brother or big sister here at school."
Although all sixth-graders have an older pal, the pairings aren’t always smooth. Lauren Llewellyn, an eighth-grader, said all but one of her pals get along with her. She’s optimistic that her pal will eventually open up.
"Hopefully by the end of the school year," she said. "That’s my goal."
Like Marcum, Llewellyn said something like the PALS program could have eased her own transition.
"I would have loved this in sixth grade," she said. "Just to know somebody else at this school."
Because of a move, Llewellyn didn’t get to attend school with her elementary school friends. And knowing people at a new school is often key to social survival.
This year included seventh and eighth grade pals, with the goal of having just eighth-graders in future years. This year’s seventh-graders are expected to return next year. Future PALS program will likely mirror the LINK Crew at Walla Walla High School, which does similar outreach with incoming freshmen.
Margaret Thomas, with GEAR UP at Pioneer, pointed out that ninth and sixth grade students have a lot in common: they are both at a critical point in their educational careers, when they are introduced to middle and high school and the social and academic pressures that come with it.
Thomas noted that the program does a lot for sixth-graders, but it also builds confidence and motivates the older students, who may feel tempted to slack in their last year at a school.
"If they are put in a position of leadership and role model, then they really step up to the plate," she said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.