Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Eisenhower sixth graders get a jump on the school year

Austin Chewiwi, left, shares a laugh with his sixth-grade mentee AJ Pegues, right, during a pizza party at Eisenhower Middle School on Tuesday. The two forged a close bond during sixth-grade orientation the day before school, and Pegues says he’ll be on the lookout for his mentor when classes start on Wednesday. (Chancey Bush/)

It’s safe to say that Rylee Pratz, an incoming sixth grader at Eisenhower Middle School, won’t be getting lost on her first day of school.

That’s because she already did, during a crash course for middle school newcomers her new school puts on every year. Now, her only worry is getting lost in the subject matter.

“I’m nervous about the math and science … but that’s all,” she said.

Starting middle school can be daunting for an 11-year-old like Pratz, which is why Eisenhower gives new arrivals a head start through a program called “Where Everybody Belongs,” or WEB, which invites sixth-graders to school to tour the campus and learn the ropes a day early.

“The nice thing about it is they already know the lay of the land,” Eisenhower Principal Jonathan Saiz said. “They get to see friendly faces already when they walk in.”

New sixth graders get a blend of practical knowledge and experience from the big kids on campus, from mapping a route to their classes to learn what to do when they’re faced with a cafeteria and no friends to sit with.

Above all, they learn that middle school is nothing to be afraid of.

“I wanted to help make the … incoming sixth graders really excited and happy to be in middle school,” said Lennox Jeneski, a mentor who’ll be starting the eighth grade on Wednesday. “(It’s) different than the movies portray.”

Not every student may be so eager to go to school a day early when it’s not required, but it’s hard to say no to a personal invitation to learn the ropes from veteran middle-schoolers.

To recruit for the WEB program, which an Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman said is currently exclusive to Eisenhower, about 50 eighth grade mentors made phone calls to each of the school’s roughly 300 incoming sixth graders to try and get them to come.

“Where Everybody Belongs” leaders cheer during an assembly capping a sixth-grade orientation day at Eisenhower Middle School on Tuesday. Some 50 eighth-graders made phone calls to roughly 300 incoming sixth-grade students to get them to come in a day before school started, and most of them answered the call. (Chancey Bush/)

Program coordinators guessed that may have been one of the reasons nearly every one of them showed up to Tuesday’s orientation.

At the same time, kids were also treated to a pizza party after they wrapped up, so who’s to say why they came?

It wasn’t too long ago that the eighth graders who made those phone calls were in the shoes of some of Eisenhower’s newest students, which is a big reason some of them jumped at the opportunity.

“When I was in sixth grade, it was just really scary,” said Sawyer Fugate, who’ll also start the eighth grade. “I just want other kids to know that they always have friends, and even though eighth graders can be scary and intimidating, there’s always someone that you can go to.”

Courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, upcoming eighth graders largely didn’t have a normal start to their middle school years, which gave some of them all the more reason to try to make that happen for the kids who are now starting middle school.

Their help paid off, said AJ Pegues, who’ll also start the sixth grade on Wednesday. Pegues said he became especially close with his WEB leader Austin Chewiwi, and is going to keep an eye out for him when he shows up to school.

Pegues said he’s still a little worried about making it to class on time. But the thing he’s looking forward to the most for the new school year?

“Making new friends,” he said.

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