When principal Realista Rodriguez first came to South Lakes High School six years ago, she was immediately struck by the mean-spirited tradition of Freshman Bip Day — a day when upperclassmen whack freshmen on the back of their heads.
"I thought, this is just not fair to the little ones," Rodriguez said. "Everyone's here for an education and everyone has the right to get an education and they shouldn't be afraid of coming to school."
So Rodriguez began to crack down on the upperclassmen perpetrators, tossing them in detention and even suspending a few.
But the problems highlighted by Freshman Bip Day, Rodriguez realized, were larger than a once-a-year occurrence. While some freshmen at the school were being picked on by their older classmates throughout the year, many others were just struggling to make the academic and social transition from middle school to high school.
This fall, a new program at South Lakes called Taking Flight is intended to help ameliorate those problems by partnering upperclassmen mentors with freshmen.
"If there's an upperclassman who knows you, then you know there's always someone older who will look out for you at school," Rodriguez said.
INSPIRED BY a similar program developed by a Phoenix, Ariz., high school, South Lakes administrators hope Taking Flight can replicate its success.
Soon after implementing their mentoring program, the Phoenix high school saw an increase in freshmen attendance, higher academic performance among freshmen and fewer disciplinary problems across the board, said Lindsay Trout, the program's sponsor and a leadership teacher at South Lakes.
Trout said Taking Flight will help by closing the division between older and younger students, bringing together the historically separate groups.
"There is very little interaction between students of different grade levels unless on a sports team or other extracurricular activity," she said. "This lack of connectivity causes all kinds of other problems."
With help from Performance Dynamics, a leadership consulting firm, the school will begin to train junior and senior students as mentors later this month. Each freshmen will be paired with a mentor and they will meet in their English classes at least once a month.
By addressing the connectivity problem among the student body, Rodriguez said Taking Flight will ease the overall adjustment process for incoming freshmen.
"Ninth grade is the most difficult year in a high-school student's life," she said. "New teachers, new school, new friends. Taking Flight can help ease that transition."
SOUTH LAKES administrators do not plan to bring the consultants back next year, hoping instead that the leadership training for the mentors can be passed down from student to student.
And by keeping costs low and the training ongoing, Trout said, the school is able to ensure a program with proven results will remain at the school for the foreseeable future.
"The best part of this program is that it does not pay thousands of dollars for people to come here and talk to our kids," she said. "It uses our biggest resource — our own students — as the core of the program."
Spencer Gibson, one of the program's 120 student mentors and one of the chief organizers, said Taking Flight will help improve South Lakes' reputation and serve as a model for other Fairfax County high schools.
"This is going to make South Lakes a leader in connectivity among its students," he said.