By Sarah Beauchemin
At The O’Farrell Charter School – one of San Diego County’s leading TK through 12 AVID charter schools – students don’t just achieve academic excellence. They also receive personal mentorship from instructors and fellow students that fosters emotional and social growth, and develops strong character for success in every area of life.
A premier example of OCS’s mentorship is its innovative “Big Buddy Program,” where high school students pair up with elementary school students to become their “big buddies” for the school year.
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As a comprehensive K-12 public charter school, The O’Farrell Charter School is dedicated to fostering student success and personal development. For more information, please visit The O’Farrell Charter School website.
The Big Buddy Program works like this: Students in each of the high school’s home base classes are matched with students in an elementary school class. OCS’s concept of a home base class is similar to traditional high schools’ homeroom, except that home base lasts for 30 minutes per day and includes the same group of students throughout their high school career. This establishes a “core group” they can depend on for support and camaraderie.
Once each high schooler is linked with his or her elementary school buddy, they meet with them once a week during the home base period for “Big Buddy Day.” A wide range of community-building and collaborative activities take place, including reading, writing, help with tough subjects like math and science, sharing stories and playing games.
Big Buddy Day Benefits Everyone
As the school year progresses, so does the connection between each buddy pair.
“The magic really happens when the buddies begin to establish a special connection and request for buddy time on their own,” said Andrea Sweetser, an OCS third-grade instructor. “My students will ask for their big buddies all the time.”
OCS high school teachers see the excitement in their students, too. “I love watching my 10th graders be cheerleaders for younger students,” said Chantal Blakeney, OCS high school English teacher and English department head. “It builds their confidence and also gives them a sense of purpose.”
Yet Buddy Day is about more than just a mentorship connection. For the underrepresented student population at OCS, the Big Buddy Program often changes students’ perspectives on their own lives and personal capabilities in the face of adversity.
For the elementary schoolers, this shift in perspective happens through the personal attention and care given by an older peer.
“Being able to make positive, social connections with upper-grade students can be very inspirational for the elementary school kids,” said Sweetser. “Having a role model, someone they can share things with, is something a lot of these kids do not have the privilege of experiencing at home. The academic support and guidance they receive from the high school buddies helps them have a desire to achieve college-readiness skills and become lifelong learners.”
Likewise, by being considered role models, the big buddies are given the opportunity to be leaders and gain a sense of agency – something that is particularly critical so close to graduation and entering the “real world.”
“Taking on the role of leader proves to the big buddies that they can be successful,” said Jonalee Castillo, a second-grade teacher at OCS. “They learn that they don’t have to be stuck with whatever negative perception of themselves they might have. Their little buddies look up to them and oftentimes see strengths in their big buddies that he or she never noticed in themselves at all.”
What’s more, said Blakeney, underrepresented youth need to see their learning in context, and working with others – like in the Big Buddy Program – is a powerful reminder that success is not worth anything if it’s not used to build up others.
Relationship Building Is at the Core of OCS
The Big Buddy Program reflects OCS’s heavy emphasis on facilitating positive relationships. The school strives not only to forge strong connections between elementary and high school students, but also between staff and parents, staff and students, and with the community at large.
“One of the biggest things that always drew me to OCS was the intense focus on building relationships – period,” said Castillo. “Honestly, everyone at OCS has a strong relationship with one another. From after-school tutoring, to discussing emotional and social coping mechanisms in the morning home base period, to in-depth parent conferences, we are with our students every step of the way to ensure their lifelong success.”
Blakeney likens OCS to a tightly knit family unit, one that students can always fall back on for support and guidance, especially when that environment is missing at home.
“We are a family, no matter the grade level,” she said. “We’re on the same mission to support these students, but also create radical change and opportunities in this underrepresented community via the love and resources we give our students. This is the foundation of everything we do at OCS, and why we are able to be so successful.”
But Big Buddy Day will always hold a particularly special place in the wide spectrum of relationship-building at OCS.
“As much as we strive to help students, the reality is that teachers can’t always speak their language; as adults, we just don’t see things the same way,” said Castillo. “The Big Buddy Program lets them know that there is a future, it’s within reach and it’s up to them to move forward.”