Grand Haven High School began a peer-mentoring program this year for autism students, called Links. The program links students with autism spectrum disorder with peers to help them academically, as well as help build their social skills outside the classroom.
“I was finding that, with my students on the autism spectrum, I wasn’t able to give them the social support they needed — like how to act in the hallways and how to behave in a social setting," said high school special-education teacher Trisha Nutt, who spearheads the program. "We mimic people who are closest to us. They’re going to listen to their peers more than they’ll listen to me.”
Autistic students who would benefit from a peer mentor are identified by Nutt and discussed during a meeting with the student’s parents.
The program had 12 peers for the past school year's last trimester, and 40 throughout the entire year who were being mentored by a link. Prior to becoming a link, the students go through mentoring training, as well as training about autism spectrum disorder.
Once they are paired with a peer, the mentor goes each day to one of student’s classes, where they help the student in that specific class. The mentor also gets class credit as an elective for the mentoring program, and must complete a daily journal entry for credit.
Once a week, Nutt gets together with all of the links for a brainstorming lunch to review the strengths and weaknesses of their connections.
Some of the peers could have up to five links per day; however, the most Grand Haven students have done is four per day, Nutt said. There were 52 classes at the high school with a link helping another student.
“The link is able to create a bridge with ASD students and other kids in the classroom,” Nutt said. “It has exceeded my expectations this year.”
The program's students are also discovering new friendships, getting together for movie nights and planning other activities outside the school walls.
Applications to be a mentoring link can be found in Nutt’s classroom. There is no grade point average requirement to be a link, but they must have two adult recommendations.
Nutt already has 10 applications from students wanting to be mentoring links next school year.
New teachers are also getting some help from their veteran counterparts. The school district’s Pathwise program pairs new teachers with veteran educators in the district. It’s a three-year program that focuses on teacher profiles, classroom instruction and planning, and professional development.
“Most young teachers (who) come out of college have just finished their student teaching or are in their second career as a teacher,” said Amy Cahalan, Pathwise organizer and teacher at Lakeshore Middle School. “This program helps build upon our strong foundation, rapport with staff, and the teachers feel more acclimated much more quickly and easily.”
Cahalan said the district used to have a loss in new teachers after the first five years. That's no longer the case since implementing Pathwise, she said.
To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.