So Pekalski and Cindiann Decoteau, eighth-grade social studies teacher, made a plan. They created and named their idea, the Brooklyn Dreams Big Sis/Lil Sis & Big Bro/Lil Bro Program which began in mid-February.
“We started out with five partnerships,” said Pekalski. “Now we are at 20 partnerships, and I have kids asking me every day to get involved. The teachers have fully bought into it as well. It has become a really good way to build a sense of community within our building.”
For the most part, the big sis or bro goes to check on the lil sis or bro during their lunchtime. They can check in before school gets started as well. Pekalski and Decoteau continue to work on scheduling connection time for the partners.
As an eighth-grade teacher, Decoteau checks in with the older students twice a week. They go over basic expectations and any questions or concerns they may have.
“We actually just had a serious situation to work through. One of our eighth graders is a student that had previously been retained. We’ve really worked to support him and now he's on the right track,” said Pekalski.
“So, he is working with a fifth-grade student who happened to have done something inappropriate. It was a really good experience for the two of them. Sometimes students don’t really listen when we talk to them, but when their peers talk to them about life issues, they listen. Ms. Decoteau helped lead a conversation between the two, where the big bro could share a bit more of his own personal experience and advise his lil bro not to go down the same road as him.”
Pekalski, Decoteau and others have seen a lot of improvement in students, both the older and younger members of the partnerships. “There is one girl who is a big sis and I have seen a 360-degree turnaround in her,” said Decoteau. “She has become so respectful and responsible. She’s helping someone else, but it’s helping her too.”
The program started with eighth graders working with third- through fifth-grade students. Now, seventh-grade scholars have asked to get involved too. At the same time, the program is going to open to kindergarteners through third grade students. While the lower elementary teachers are asking if the older partners can help with other tasks too, like sight words or reading a story.
“It’s just blossoming into such a beautiful thing where the little kids are getting what they need, and it’s helping our older scholars to feel like they matter to these little guys,” said Pekalski.
To be a big sis or bro, the students need to write a letter that explains why they think they would be good at it. What different experiences they have had that would be helpful to them. They need to think it through a bit and put some effort in, explains Decoteau.
“We have not had any serious issues come up between a partnership yet, but we have let the older students know to bring those types of things to us, and we will get the appropriate staff involved,” said Decoteau.
“There was a situation where two lil bros got into a fight. So, the two big bros asked if they could help the two younger students talk it out. It worked out really well. They created a special handshake. It was beautiful.”
With summer coming, Pekalski and Decoteau are putting some thought into whether they can arrange any summertime meetings. They will see what they can work out. They also know that they will get the program started as soon as the school year gets underway next fall.
“This program has helped with behaviors. It has helped with kids who need a little extra attention, and it has helped with academics,” said Pekalski. “It’s a preventive measure to put something in place that gives the kids a sense of camaraderie, of belonging.”
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Brooklyn Dreams Charter School, a school in Brooklyn, New York, is a partner school in the National Heritage Academies network of over 95 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.
Visit Brooklyn Dreams Charter School's blog to read more stories like this.