Leading the Way to Success

Pioneer High School works with five elementary schools to improve the academic success of the elementary students.

It’s the middle of the day as Laura McNeil, senior at Pioneer, arrives at Eberwhite Elementary School in her comfy jeans and flowery orange top, carefully picked out for participating in various activities. The classroom is silent as she walks in except for the occasional fidgeting of students on the carpet and the teacher’s calming voice while she reads the class a book. McNeil walks towards the edge of the large carpet covering the floor and quietly sits down, careful not to disrupt the class. She sits down relaxed, but moments later, it’s a race for the students to see who gets to sit in her lap first. The voices of the elementary students begin to fill the room with whispers as they tell each other to be quiet. Three girls sit by McNeil; one playing with her keys, one sitting in her lap and one next to her. After the reading is done, the elementary students sit back in their seats at tables of five, waiting for the lesson to begin. McNeil pulls up a chair and sits down next to a kindergarten student she was partnered with through Trailblazers.

Trailblazers started in 1992 by Jenni Zimmer, psychologist at Lawton Elementary School, and Pegge Tappe, Pioneer High School’s social worker. The program joins high school and elementary students together in a program that focuses on the academic success of the elementary students. “[It’s] part of a movement across the country that builds a sense of connectedness and responsibility to one’s community by providing a mentorship opportunity,” said Don Packard, Pioneer English teacher and supervisor of the Trailblazers program. Packard joined the program around 2004 and has been helping build the growth of students since then with Jonathan Stern, a Pioneer social worker.

Each year, 60 senior students from Pioneer are selected to be a part of Trailblazers (about 80 percent of the applicants), which is offered as a service learning class. Students who wish to apply must write an essay, such as a personal experience they’ve had with kids, and get two adult recommendations. Along with that, students must be maintaining strong attendance in order to be considered for the Trailblazers program. “Attendance is super important, you can’t help others if you are absent,” Packard said. “It’s the one-on-one every school day that makes the difference.” Students then may get an interview with either Packard or Stern. The interview is used as a way to find out if the student has the right skills to be successful as a Trailblazer.

The elementary site supervisor, who works with the teachers and principal, then decides which students would benefit from the services a Trailblazer can offer. This could range from help with reading, math, homework or getting projects done. Elementary students are also selected for social and affective reasons.

“[The Trailblazers] will supply the nurturing, guidance and support necessary to enhance the elementary child’s academic success and self-esteem,” Packard said. “It is expected that this will be a mutually rewarding experience in the development of competence and self-worth.”

To prepare the high school students for Trailblazers, Stern and Packard provide the students team building exercises, training and simulations based on scenarios they may face at the elementary school. It is common for many of the students who are a part of Trailblazers, although not all, to return to their home elementary school. This year, Trailblazers are helping elementary school students at Dicken, Eberwhite, Bach, Lawton and Pattengill.

For Packard, the challenging part is making sure that the right students are accepted into the program and the pairings between the high school and elementary students are a good match. “It’s not always all ‘A’ students that make the best Trailblazers,” Packard said. “Sometimes it’s the kids that know what it’s like to struggle that make the best Trailblazers.” Packard has also realized that the program not only has an impact on the elementary student, but also on the high school students. For some, Packard admits the program has pointed towards which direction their future leads to.

For McNeil, it is the highlight of her day as she continues to make an impact on the students. “Trailblazers is a great way to contribute to the community and gain an enriching life experience,” McNeil said.