Once 2:47 p.m. hits, and that final bell rings at West Deptford Middle School, most sixth-graders don't even hesitate, they're right out the door, happy another school day has come to an end.
But on Tuesday afternoons, for nine weeks, a group of sixth-grade girls stay after school for little while. They're not in detention and they're not getting extra tutoring for a class. As a matter of fact, it has zero effect on their actual grades.
However, these girls are receiving very valuable life lessons, as they are mentored by high school teens in West Deptford's Young Women's Leadership Club, a group that helps middle-school aged girls become more assertive as leaders.
Jamie DeFrancis, a teacher at West Deptford Middle School, brought the program to the district just over 10 years ago. She got the idea after attending a conference at the University of Virginia and discovering the program at the school. DeFrancis worked with a faculty member at the college to create a version of the leadership club that had high school girls mentor middle school girls.
DeFrancis emphasized that the group is all about helping the middle school girls come out of their shell and be more courageous and assertive as they go forward into their teenage years.
“Its how to be independent and being competent,” said DeFrancis. “We talk about being influenced by peer pressure and how to deal with social aggression. We'll start with fun things, lots of team building, fun crafts and then talk about serious things.”
Teachers nominated the middle school girls they see as emerging leaders. DeFrancis says that she receives nominations from every teacher early in the year and that the girls begin coming in for sessions around Thanksgiving.
Starting in September, DeFrancis invites in high school girls who would like to act as mentors, or “big sisters,” to the sixth-grade girls. They then have to go through a nine-week training course before beginning group sessions with the sixth-graders.
With the group so rooted at the middle school at this point, many of the mentors had actually been in the group as middle schoolers. Most of the mentors are juniors and seniors from West Deptford High School.
“They remember being in it, they remember the girls,” said DeFrancis. “High school kids today are so busy, so to have them commit to this is incredible. So we immediately get the best girls.”
The group sessions are designed to be fun and comfortable for the girls. The mentors lead discussions with the sixth-graders and implore them to become stronger leaders through various lessons and activities. On Tuesday afternoon, the girls discussed characteristics of leaders and who they look up to. DeFrancis said that Tuesday's session will later carry into deeper discussions in the coming weeks.
The leadership club's results keeps the program going strong. Teachers have a lot of positive feedback about the girls who go through the program.
“I'll be in a teacher meeting,” said DeFrancis, “and they tell me that the girls come out of it more confident and more able to express their opinions.”
The program has now grown to where they fill three full classrooms on Tuesday afternoons. As she watched over the sessions taking place on Tuesday, DeFrancis mentioned that she can't wait to see some of the sixth-grade girls back here again in just a few years.
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